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Congressional Republicans tentatively agree to raise federal worker pay, rebuffing Trump

Virginia 10th Congressional District candidate, incumbent Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), had pushed President Trump to reverse his decision on a pay freeze for federal workers. (Pete Marovich/For The Washington Post)

Congressional Republicans have tentatively agreed to a 1.9 percent pay raise for the nation’s 2 million civilian federal workers, overruling President Trump who sought to freeze their pay.

The preliminary deal between House and Senate Republicans is also likely to lift a salary freeze affecting hundreds of executive-level employees and appointees including Vice President Pence and members of the Trump Cabinet, according to lawmakers and aides.

Democrats oppose that element of the deal, and the package could change when lawmakers return to Capitol Hill following the midterm elections and complete negotiations.

Trump seeks to freeze pay in 2019 for federal workers

Republicans who had been pushing to give civilian federal workers a raise hailed the outcome. GOP lawmakers including Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) had pushed Trump to reverse his initial decision in August to deny the raise.

While signing an executive order Aug. 31 to extend retirement savings benefits, President Trump said he'll look at potential pay increases for federal workers. (Video: The Washington Post)

Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), who chairs the spending subcommittee that handles the issue, credited Comstock for pushing for the result. Comstock is in a tough campaign to hang on to her Northern Virginia House seat, and the salaries of the tens of thousands of federal employees in her district had become an important issue in her race.

“Thanks to Barbara Comstock’s tireless advocacy, there is an agreement in place on pay raises,” Graves said in a statement to The Washington Post. “This wouldn’t be resolved without her help, or without President Trump’s booming economy.”

Comstock said in an interview she lobbied Vice President Pence for a raise for the civilian workforce, and he was receptive. But the White House, citing budget constraints, never reversed its opposition.

“I’ve been making the case for the rank-and-file side,” Comstock said. “I’m confident we will get it. We need to retain talent in the federal government.”

A White House spokesman did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokesperson for Pence said the vice president’s office was not involved in negotiations on the raise.

The average federal worker salary is around $85,000, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management. But the American Federation of Government Employees, representing about 750,000 federal workers, says that number is inflated by the high salaries of some doctors and scientists, and that the bulk of federal workers make between $33,000 and $55,000 a year.

Around 15 percent of the nation’s 2.1 million federal workforce live in and around Washington, D.C. The majority of the 2.1 million work all over the nation at military bases, federal labs, national parks, veterans hospitals and other facilities scattered throughout the states.

Senate backs 1.9 percent federal employee raise, rejecting Trump’s call for freeze

Most federal civilian employees received a 1.9 percent raise in 2018 and would be in line for another 1.9 percent raise in January 2019 under the congressional deal. Members of the military are on track to receive a 2.6 percent raise in January.

The question of government worker pay was among the final issues being negotiated as lawmakers rushed to finish a package of congressional spending bills last month, including the one funding federal salaries. Because no agreement was reached before the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30, the bills were wrapped into a short-term spending measure that runs through Dec. 7.

The House has already adjourned through the midterm elections, so lawmakers will resume talks when they return to the Capitol following the elections.

Democrats support the pay raise for civilian workers, but are opposed to lifting the pay freeze for executive-level appointees that was in place throughout much of the Obama administration. It is uncertain whether that element of the GOP deal will survive final talks.

“There is no reason that the Trump administration, which boasts the wealthiest Cabinet in modern history, should be held to a different standard than the Obama administration when it comes to pay increases,” Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement. “If Republicans were really focused on fiscal responsibility for America’s kids and grandkids, they wouldn’t be trying to increase pay for the vice president and senior Trump officials.”

The executive-level employees in question include political appointees tapped by the White House who fill the top rungs of Cabinet agencies as well as dozens of smaller federal agencies and ambassadors who are not career members of the Foreign Service.

All have seen their pay frozen under language that has carried over in annual appropriations bills since the Obama administration, following the two-year government-wide pay freeze President Obama put in place in 2011 following the recession.

The provision affecting them would lift the freeze and reinstate the salary limits at where they would have been, had the freeze not gone into effect, according to Democratic aides.

For about 1,100 senior political appointees — whose annual salaries now range from $155,500 to $199,700 — that could mean a substantial bump in pay, with some getting raises of more than 5 percent, although the raises would not be automatic in all cases.

Pence, whose vice presidential salary has been frozen at $230,700, could be eligible for an increase bringing his salary up to $243,500.

Randy L. Erwin, national president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which represents more than 100,000 employees, called it “an insult to civil service federal employees across the country that President Trump had advocated for yet another pay freeze for federal workers in 2019.”

He said he is pleased to see Congress “challenge the White House” on the issue.

But Erwin said the union does not oppose a lifting of the cap for higher paid appointees as well, because “federal employees across the board are significantly underpaid.”