Carolyn Bell walked away from a prestigious job and $76,000 salary as a corporate bankruptcy litigator a year ago because, she said, "I wanted to wear a white hat."

In Washington, her expertise got her offers as high as $125,000 from private firms, but she settled instead on a $37,000-a-year job last year with the Justice Department's criminal tax division, where she said she's never been happier.

Until this month, that is, when Bell almost was laid off twice because Congress and the administration could not agree on a budget deal.

The ongoing budget fight has tarnished the already weak appeal of public service, according to experts and federal employees, and may make it harder for the government to attract and keep top-level professionals, as new employees such as Bell think twice about their jobs.

"I was willing to pay a significant premium to come to work for the government, and all I asked in return was a living wage -- to pay my rent, buy nylons, the everyday essentials," Bell said. "To be a political pawn, to be among the first to pay a price, it's not fair. . . . If furloughs come through, I will have to quit."

On Oct. 1 and again Tuesday, the nation's 2.4 million federal workers woke up not knowing whether the government had shut down for lack of funds. Over the three-day Columbus Day weekend, the government shut down, then reopened after President Bush and Congress agreed to try again on deficit reduction. The government runs up against the next funding deadline Oct. 19.

While threats of layoffs are an annual ritual, many employees and managers said, the game seemed harsher this year. Agencies took great pains to detail just how bad it could get for federal workers and the public, as a way to put pressure on Congress to agree to the administration's budget offer.

Over the past month, each agency and department has publicized in detail its plans for longer-lasting furloughs -- more than 22 days in some cases -- that would be required under the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction law if no agreement is reached.

"In any undertaking of this size, there is bound to be anguish," Bush said at a news conference Tuesday, "and I want to recognize the valiant federal work force that had to suffer through some uncertainty of this period."

His sympathy may have been too little and too late, said G. Jerry Shaw, chairman of the Public Employees Roundtable, a group of 33 public management and professional associations. "It would have been much better for him to say, 'We're doing the best we can {to solve the problem}', instead of 'We're going to make it appear that you will suffer,' " Shaw added.

Professionals who choose public service over other options do so for somewhat different reasons from those of other employees, said Patricia Ingraham, professor of public administration and management at the State University of New York at Binghamton. "It's the idea of making some kind of larger contribution," she said, and the last-minute nature of the budget process "devalues that."

Inviting people to join public service amid the recent budget impasse "sounds like you're being invited to a wake," Ingraham added. "Who wants to have a first job like that and to wade into that morass?"

Even the mechanics of shutting down the government appeared insulting to many workers. Under rules outlined by the attorney general in 1981, each office was to decide who was "essential" and who was "nonessential," and the nonessentials were to go home.

Employees such as Linda Kragie believe they are essential to the government, or she probably wouldn't be there. After all, she doesn't have to be.

Kragie, 33, was earning $85,000 at a D.C. law firm, but got bored with the job and decided to switch to the "white hat" team in May after the Labor Department promised her she would get to do plenty of big-dollar litigation. Her salary dropped to about $55,000.

"It was valuable for me to be doing things on the right side," she said.

But as the government prepared for possible furloughs a few weeks ago, she was told to stop scheduling conferences and depositions and was warned she might have to delay hearings falling near Oct. 1. After she had invested so much energy in her work, it struck her as ridiculous that she might have a case dismissed because she was furloughed.

"I'm not going to stay if I get laid off," she said. "You can't do litigation part time. When you do litigation, it's like going to war. I don't want to go to war with no armor, no tanks and no airplane cover."

Public perceptions of the federal work force have played a part in employees' decisions to stay or quit the government for years. While inadequate pay has been the leading reason qualified people leave public service, it is not a stand-alone issue, according to a U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board study released in June.

The survey of 16,000 employees found that the public image of federal employees -- "in the eyes of federal employees -- appears to have come close to rock bottom."

Only 8 percent of those surveyed saw the public image of the government as a reason to stay, down from 14 percent in 1986. About 21 percent saw it as a reason to leave.

Justice Department attorney Bell wants to stay. She is not the kind of federal employee who feels locked into her job because her skills may be viewed as mediocre or too specialized for private industry or because she is a decade away from her pension and can't bring herself to leave.

But she found it unprofessional to have to warn the attorney for a recently convicted defendant that she might not be able to show up at his sentence hearing because she might be laid off. Equally unacceptable was having to set back scheduled interviews because law enforcement agents were afraid they would fall on furlough days.

Congress's willingness to sacrifice federal workers during the budget impasse erodes the public's image of the work she does, Bell said. "How are we supposed to stand up before juries and put people in jail if we can't get the respect of Congress?"