House and Senate appropriations conferees yesterday approved a 4.1 percent pay raise for civilian federal employees in 1991, an increase that is on par with raises in the private sector last year.

In September, President Bush said he wanted a 3.5 percent increase for federal workers. A White House spokesman had no comment on the conferees' action.

"This is not really a real raise in the sense of closing the comparability gap" between the public and private sectors, said a spokesman for Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), who argued yesterday in favor of the increase. "This will merely keep that gap from growing worse."

The appropriations conferees are also considering a plan to overhaul the federal pay system.

It would link federal salaries to local labor market wages, boosting pay in high-cost cities and eventually closing the public-private sector gap.

For the last several years, civil service experts outside the government have argued that pay disparity between the public and private sector has driven many qualified employees out of government and has made it harder for the government to attract new ones.

The president's pay adviser this year reported that, on the average, federal employees' wages fell behind their private sector counterparts by 30 percent.

Federal employee unions that have advocated closing that gap were satisfied with yesterday's action.

"I'm pleased that Congress has taken the step of increasing the pay," said Robert M. Tobias, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. "It's not enough, but it's a step in the right direction."

The 4.1 percent pay increase, which must be approved by the House and Senate, would be effective Jan. 1.

It would cover civilian employees under the General Schedule, but exclude employees in the Senior Executive Service. Under legislation enacted last year, SES employees will receive salary increases of 18 percent to 25 percent, which would be effective in January. The president must sign an executive order granting the increase before it can take effect.

The decision on the pay raise comes amid plummeting employee morale over the possibility of layoffs that would take place if Congress and the administration cannot agree on a budget by midnight Friday.