Federal employees would gain new rights to challenge government decisions to outsource federal work to private contractors under a bill introduced this week in the Senate.

The bill, by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), would allow federal employees to appeal the outcome of job competitions to the General Accounting Office. Only contractors currently have standing to appeal such decisions to the GAO.

Collins said her bill would correct the imbalance. She introduced it both as a stand-alone bill and as an amendment to the defense authorization legislation pending in the Senate.

"Providing them with protest rights that are similar to those enjoyed by the private sector is, I think, vital to assuring federal employees that the rules of the game are fair to them," Collins said in a statement Wednesday.

The competitions are mandated by President Bush's "competitive sourcing" initiative. Bush says requiring federal employees to prove they can do their jobs better and more cheaply than the private sector promotes government efficiency, even if the jobs ultimately stay in-house.

The bill comes a month after GAO officials rejected attempts by the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Federation of Federal Employees to contest decisions to outsource work at several agencies. GAO officials determined that neither the unions nor their members had legal standing to file such appeals. Comptroller General David M. Walker sent a letter to Collins recommending that Congress consider awarding such rights to employees.

The bill would grant appeal rights to the agency tender official, the person responsible for developing federal workers' "most efficient organization" plan for keeping the jobs in-house. If that person, often a high-ranking official in an agency, declines to file a protest, a majority of affected employees could elect someone to represent them in an appeal to the GAO. Employee unions still would not be able to bring such actions.

John Gage, AFGE president, said the bill does not go far enough because employees would not be able to appeal outsourcing decisions to the Court of Federal Claims. Still, "AFGE regards this legislation as a very constructive start," he said in a statement.

Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president of the Professional Services Council, said the contractor group supports extending appeal rights to agency tender officers but not to elected worker representatives.

"We support parity in the protest rights," Chvotkin said. ". . . Private-sector employees and private-sector unions or trade associations do not have standing to bring a challenge of an agency action at the General Accounting Office."

Chad Kolton, a spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget, said officials there had not yet reviewed the details of Collins's bill. "We share her concern about the current state of employee appeal rights, and we do look forward to working with her to identify a tailored solution that provides an equitable avenue for appeals," Kolton said.

Angela B. Styles, a former OMB official who is now a paid consultant to AFGE, issued an 11-page statement through the union Wednesday in which she argued that federal workers should be able to appeal outsourcing decisions to both the GAO and federal court. Styles, now a lawyer specializing in government contracts at the law firm Miller & Chevalier, ran Bush's initiative before resigning last September.

"These competitions must engender the trust of those most affected: federal employees," she wrote.

Sens. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) have sponsored a bill that would allow federal workers to challenge the decision to outsource federal jobs.John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said the Senate bill does not do enough to protect workers' rights.