When cash-strapped federal agencies are forced to lay off employees, they often try to create "soft landing" packages for the displaced workers.

Now, the Senate has proposed a parachute for some Federal Aviation Administration employees who had their jobs contracted out.

Last week, the Senate approved an amendment that would help employees who were close to federal retirement and at risk of losing all or most of their pension credits because of the FAA's decision to transfer their work to Bethesda-based defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp.

The Senate amendment would keep FAA employees within two years of retirement on the federal payroll so they could qualify for their civil service retirement and health insurance benefits. These short-timers would be detailed to Lockheed Martin, other parts of the FAA or other agencies.

The action by the Senate could set a precedent for dealing with federal employees who are near retirement and lose their jobs because of privatization or through the upcoming round of military base closings.

The amendment was included in a $65.9 billion spending bill for fiscal 2006 that would finance operations at several agencies, including the Transportation and Treasury departments. Sponsors of the provision include Republican Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Susan Collins (Maine) and John Thune (S.D.), a spokeswoman for the Senate Appropriations Committee said.

The FAA's contract with Lockheed was carried out under President Bush's "competitive sourcing" initiative, which calls on agencies to determine whether the government's commercial activities can be turned over to the private sector and provided at a lower cost.

The Bush initiative has roiled federal unions, created unease in the federal workforce and stirred opposition in some quarters on Capitol Hill. In July, the FAA-Lockheed contract became a target for opponents of the contracting-out policy.

The House voted, 238 to 177, to accept an amendment sponsored by Rep. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) that would nullify the FAA contract with Lockheed. Under the $1.9 billion contract, Lockheed took control Oct. 4 of general aviation flight services that had been performed by about 2,500 FAA employees.

The Sanders amendment, included in the House's version of the Transportation-Treasury spending bill, has drawn a White House veto threat. The Senate amendment, written with assistance from the FAA, should give House-Senate negotiators a way to help some of the displaced employees and avoid canceling the Lockheed contract, a step that the White House said would cost $325 million.

Wally Pike, congressional liaison for the National Association of Air Traffic Specialists, estimated that the Senate amendment could help as many as 213 people qualify for federal retirement. Greg Martin, an FAA spokesman, said the amendment would affect 175 employees.

Lockheed has hired 1,648 of the displaced FAA employees, according to the FAA.

Joe Wagovich, a Lockheed spokesman, welcomed the Senate's amendment, saying it "will help employees who are close to retirement." The loss of federal pension credits "has been a point of contention, and we are happy that they will be dealt with in this manner," he said.

Raise on Track

In case you missed the news: The pay raise looks like a lock.

The Senate, as part of the Transportation-Treasury bill, approved an average 3.1 percent raise for federal employees next year. The House had approved the 3.1 percent raise in June.

The civil service raise is higher than what the president recommended for 2006. Although the White House has objected to the 3.1 percent increase, presidential advisers have not threatened to veto the bill over the issue.

GEHA on Diary Live

Richard G. Miles, president of the Government Employees Hospital Association, known as GEHA, will take questions and comments on the 2006 federal employee health insurance program at noon Wednesday on Federal Diary Live at www.washingtonpost.com. Please join us.

E-mail: barrs@washpost.com