In a rare break with President Trump, a growing number of congressional Republicans are calling on him to reverse his opposition to giving federal employees a pay raise next year, warning his stance could hurt the party in November’s midterm elections.
Some GOP lawmakers fear denying even a small pay increase to the 2.1 million civil servants across the country could be politically damaging in House districts the GOP is defending this fall, particularly those with heavy concentrations of federal workers that provide support to military bases.
“Look, a lot of members have a significant federal presence in their district and feel very strongly about this,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), whose constituents include more than 20,000 federal workers, the majority at Tinker Air Force Base.
“The idea that people who are comparatively well-off get tax cuts and we’re not going to help federal employees get a reasonable raise . . . I think it’s a signal to the workforce about how they’re valued,” added Cole, who was among 23 House lawmakers who sent a letter to Trump last week urging him to reconsider his position.
Shortly before Labor Day, Trump repeated his call for lawmakers to freeze the salaries of federal employees in 2019, a move he first proposed in February. House and Senate negotiators are working to finalize a budget bill that will determine the salaries of federal workers.
Unless Congress passes and the president signs a bill that includes a raise by the end of the year, federal pay rates will remain flat.
The chorus of voices from the right calling for a federal pay hike reflects an unusual pushback against Trump from members of his own party.
Corey Stewart, the GOP Senate candidate in Virginia, declared earlier this month he was breaking with Trump on the issue, saying that federal employees “wake up early, face punishing traffic and work hard to serve their nation and support their families.”
Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.) said in an interview that she is hopeful Trump will change his mind, adding that Rep. Mark Meadows, chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, had spoken to the president directly and urged him to back a pay hike. A spokesman for Meadows declined to comment.
The day after repeating his call for a pay freeze, Trump said he was going to “study” the issue in the wake of objections from lawmakers.
But since then, the president has indicated to advisers that he is not inclined to relent, according to White House officials. Trump has been urged to hold the line by White House budget director Mick Mulvaney, whose spending plan early this year canceled the automatic 2.1 percent annual raise that federal workers receive.
Trump is deeply distrustful of bureaucrats in the federal government and has targeted federal workers as part of the Washington “swamp” he pledged to drain. The recent publication of an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times by a senior administration official deeply critical of Trump only deepened his antipathy toward a workforce some in the White House have derided as “the administrative state,” officials said.
If federal pay remains flat in 2019, it would be the first time federal employees would not see an across-the-board raise since the three-year freeze that then-President Barack Obama put in place after the recession.
Such a move is harder to justify in the current economic climate, experts said.The vast majority of federal employees — about 80 percent — work outside the D.C. region. Many of the Republicans lobbying Trump on the issue represent large populations of federal employees who could form key voting blocs in the midterms.
“It’s one thing when it happens in the middle of a giant fiscal meltdown,” said Don Kettl, a public affairs professor at the University of Texas at Austin, “but now we have the strongest economy in a generation and Republicans are being forced to walk the plank against their own constituencies.”
In the letter last week to Trump, which was organized by Rep. Scott W. Taylor (R-Va.), 16 Republicans and seven Democrats cited national security concerns as a reason to give federal workers a raise, saying they need to back civilians supporting the military.
Taylor, whose Hampton Roads-area district has at least eight military installations and about 30,000 civilian federal employees, said in an interview that he understands the president “wants to be fiscally responsible” and called the decision “well-intended.”
“But perhaps there wasn’t an understanding of how important this is to so many people” who play “fundamental roles in allowing the national security apparatus to continue,” said Taylor, who holds one of three Virginia seats Democrats are targeting in their quest to regain control of the House.
In addition, 158 House Democrats led by Reps. Jamie Raskin (Md.) and Gerald E. Connolly (Va.) sent House leaders a letter last week urging them to ignore the president’s position.
It remains uncertain how the issue will be resolved on Capitol Hill. Comstock, whose district includes 35,000 federal workers, said leaders on the House Appropriations Committee told her they would include a raise in the final budget, following the Senate, which agreed in August to a 1.9 percent increase.
Jennifer Hing, a spokeswoman for the committee, said the issue remains undecided.
The Congressional Budget Office said a 1.9 percent boost to federal pay rates would cost an estimated $3.3 billion in the 2019 fiscal year.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has not raised the question of a federal pay hike directly with the president, according to a House GOP leadership aide. However, Rep. Steve Stivers (R-Ohio), who chairs the House GOP campaign committee, was among the Republicans who signed the letter to Trump.
Rep. Tom Graves (R-Ga.), who chairs the House Appropriations panel examining the issue, said he is looking for direction from the White House.
“It would help to have a little more clarity from the administration, and I know they’re working through that,” Graves said.