Congress has sent legislation to the president that would allow agencies to provide more generous bonuses to top-notch employees and give them time off for travel during off-duty hours.

The "Federal Workforce Flexibility Act" was approved Monday on a voice vote in the Senate and sent to President Bush for his signature. The House approved the legislation, also on a voice vote, last week. Bush is expected to sign the bill.

The bill makes several government-wide changes in federal employment policy and has been in the works for more than two years. Its chief proponent, Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), said yesterday it would give the government additional ways to "attract and retain the best and the brightest minds for public service."

The legislation effectively waives current limits, which hold bonuses to 25 percent of base pay, and would permit recruitment bonuses to rise to 100 percent of base pay under certain conditions.

In cases in which agencies believed they needed to be more competitive in order to keep an employee, bonuses could be increased to up to 50 percent of base pay in a given year.

The bill would authorize compensatory time for federal employees who are required to travel on official business during off-duty hours, such as flying on Sundays to attend a Monday morning meeting. Current rules make it difficult for employees to qualify for pay while traveling outside duty hours.

The National Treasury Employees Union had lobbied for the time-off provision, which had drawn some objections from Bush administration officials who thought a cap should be placed on the hours that could be claimed as travel time.

Colleen M. Kelley, the union president, called the provision "a good program not only for employees -- allowing them much more flexibility in balancing their work and personal lives -- but for their agencies as well."

In other changes aimed at making the government more competitive as an employer, the bill would:

* Change vacation policy for newly hired mid-career professionals, so that those with substantial non-federal career experience could be given more vacation time.

For example, the bill would permit agencies to grant 20 vacation days a year, instead of 13 days, to a "mid-career" hire who joined the government with 10 years of private-sector experience. Private-sector employees who took senior level or executive jobs in the government would receive 26 days of vacation annually, the current maximum rate for federal executives.

* Place the Office of Personnel Management in charge of the government's "critical pay" program, which allows agencies to pay higher salaries to attract experts into the federal service for short periods of time.

Current law provides for 800 "critical pay" positions in the government with salaries that can go as high as $175,700, but only three are currently filled. Congress hopes that moving the program from the Office of Management and Budget to OPM will encourage greater use of the program.

* Require agencies to pay more attention to the career development of employees.

The legislation would direct agencies to appoint a training officer, create comprehensive management succession programs to develop future leaders, and provide special training to managers to help them deal with poor performers.

In addition to Voinovich, members of Congress who pushed for the legislation included Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Reps. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.), Jo Ann S. Davis (R-Va.) and Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.).

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