Democratic Party leaders called on President Bush yesterday to reverse a decision to award cash bonuses to some political appointees.

Senate Democratic Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.) and his House counterpart, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), said such payments, prohibited under White House policy since 1994, encourage political favoritism and send the wrong message to federal employees.

"These kinds of cash bonuses to political appointees were banned because they were abused in the past," Daschle said. "The fact that the Bush administration has decided, in secret, to bring them back is just the latest demonstration of how misplaced this administration's priorities are."

White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. overturned an eight-year-old ban on such bonuses in a March 29 memo, which became public only this week.

Administration officials have defended the policy change as a just means of rewarding exceptional performance. They point out that career federal employees have long been eligible for similar bonuses.

"All federal workers ought to be treated the same and good, hard work ought to be rewarded in the same manner for all employees," Scott McClellan, a Bush spokesman, said yesterday.

Both Democratic leaders called on Bush to reverse his recent decision to limit a pay raise for 1.8 million civilian federal employees to 3.1 percent. Congress proposed a 4.1 percent increase, but Bush said that was too expensive, given the money needed to fight terrorism.

Democrats said limiting federal employee raises while at the same time doling out new bonuses for political appointees was demoralizing to career civil servants.

About 2,100 mid-level political appointees are eligible for the annual cash awards. White House employees and political appointees who are confirmed by the Senate are not eligible.

Most agency heads can award bonuses of as much as $10,000. Awards over that amount require approval from the Office of Personnel Management, and those over $25,000 must be cleared by Bush.

A Daschle spokesman said Senate policy does not permit senators to pay bonuses to their staff. Brendan Daly, a Pelosi spokesman, said she and other House members have paid bonuses to their staffs. But the situation is different, he said, because congressional staffs are made up entirely of political appointees.

Asked if such payments, like those to administration appointees, still could raise the potential for abuse, Daly said, "Certainly it could, but I don't think in our case that it has. And I don't know of any other cases that it has."