The bill has not been introduced (and doesn't even have a congressional sponsor), but already there is talk of breaking it into two pieces.

That's a sign of how difficult it is to get consensus on federal pay changes, union rights and due process for federal employees facing disciplinary action.

Still, the Bush administration's proposed "Working for America Act" was the topic of debate before the House Government Reform subcommittee on the federal workforce yesterday. The panel chairman, Rep. Jon Porter (R-Nev.), said he wanted to hear ideas "before a bill of this magnitude is introduced."

The draft bill would jettison the General Schedule, a mostly white-collar pay system, and the Federal Wage System, a mostly blue-collar system, by 2010. That alone would make it one of the biggest changes in the civil service in decades.

The draft bill also would strengthen management rights and significantly limit collective bargaining. For employees facing major disciplinary action, appeal rights would be streamlined, and the Merit Systems Protection Board would have less discretion to modify an agency's choice of punishment.

Yesterday, David M. Walker, the head of the Government Accountability Office, testified in support of revamping federal pay practices to make them more reflective of market conditions and employee performance. But he recommended that agencies first demonstrate that they can be successful in carrying out performance-based pay before putting it into effect -- what Walker called the "show me" test.

He also suggested that Congress should "move slower and possibly separately" on any changes in employee and union rights. Although the government has experience in running experimental projects on pay and performance management, it has far less experience in how to change labor-management relations and employee appeals rights, Walker said.

Linda M. Springer, director of the Office of Personnel Management, said dividing the proposal into two parts is "an option that could be considered, but we have crafted this bill based on the concept that they work together."

Porter and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) indicated interest in the possibility of a phased approach to overhauling federal pay if Congress decides to go that route.

Norton also questioned why the administration would want to make changes before a track record has been established at the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, which have announced plans to start such systems that will cover about half the federal workforce.

"Nobody is going to buy into the next million [employees] without having some sense what happened to the first million," Norton said. "This is too big for me to put my faith in."

Porter said he is approaching the administration's proposal "very cautiously" but noted that the GS pay system goes back to the 1940s and expressed concern that agencies without modern pay systems would be at a competitive disadvantage.

Springer said the proposed bill grows out of years of experience with experimental projects involving "pay bands" and more rigorous job evaluations. About 90,000 federal employees are covered by alternative systems, she said.

"By and large, the employees in those systems would not turn the clock back to where they were before," Springer said.

Under the proposal for government-wide changes, OPM would set up a core compensation system featuring broad salary ranges and occupational groupings. In the proposed system, Springer said, pay raises linked to local labor markets "would constitute a significant portion of base pay adjustments," with the balance of the pay raises tied to an employee's job rating.

Only employees deemed at least "fully successful" would be eligible for the raises, she said.

Springer portrayed the proposed limits on bargaining by unions as less extensive than those planned at the Department of Homeland Security. Unions have objected to efforts to reduce their clout there and are in federal court seeking to stop the agency from going forward with its plan.

Yesterday, John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, and Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, reiterated their objections to administration efforts to narrow bargaining rights.

"For this system to have any credibility and be transparent, taking away union rights starts on the wrong foot," Gage said.

Diary associate Eric Yoder contributed to this column.