President Obama, who earns $400,000 a year, wrote a check to the U.S. Treasury this week, the first installment of his donation of $20,000, retroactive to March 1. (JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

President Obama plans to give up 5 percent of his salary this year to draw attention to the financial sacrifice of more than 1 million federal employees who will be furloughed by automatic spending cuts starting in less than three weeks, the White House said Wednesday.

The gesture comes as the president has struggled for weeks to convince Americans that the $85 billion sequester that kicked in across the government a month ago is having dire consequences for government services.

Obama, who earns $400,000, wrote a check to the U.S. Treasury this week, the first installment of his donation of $20,000, retroactive to March 1, the day sequestration started to slice 5 percent from non-Defense programs, a White House official said. The checks will continue through the end of the year.

Obama cannot claim true solidarity with most federal employees. He has published two best-selling autobiographies and the vast majority of his income comes in the form of royalties. According to tax returns, the president and Michelle Obama made $750,000 in 2011. In the previous year, the couple made $1.8 million and in 2009 they reported an annual income of $5.5 million.

But the move to give back a part of his salary served to refocus attention on an issue that polling suggests is drawing mixed opinions from Americans. Other high-profile members of his administration have done the same, and others may follow.

How sequestration will impact federal departments

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he will return a portion of his salary to share the pain with 750,000 Defense civilians who will lose 14 days of pay this fiscal year. The Environmental Protection Agency announced that Acting Administrator Bob Perciasepe decided — before the president’s action became public — to donate 32 hours of pay to a fund that provides emergency loans, child-care subsidies and other financial help to federal workers.

And the Department of Housing and Urban Development disclosed that Secretary Shaun Donovan and eight politically appointed deputies will donate seven days worth of salaries. Their checks will either go back to the Treasury or to a nonprofit housing group that helps low-income Americans.

“HUD’s leadership stands in solidarity with the rest of the employees and we are committed to sharing in this sacrifice together,” Deputy Secretary Maurice Jones said in a statement.

Vice President Biden’s office said he has not decided whether he will follow suit.

The president’s donation was quickly ridiculed by the Republican National Committee, which threw the symbolism back at the White House in this blistering statement:

“Hi all, don’t worry about that whole budget thing taxpayers. Obama is giving back 5 percent. . . . And then he’ll hop on Air Force One to take a $180k per HOUR ride to fundraise with the same fat cat millionaires and billionaires he campaigned against.”

Organizations representing federal employees from rank-and-file to senior executives said they appreciate the gesture and hope other Cabinet secretaries follow suit. But they said it hardly takes the sting out of lost pay.

“It’s a feel-good thing. We’re sharing your pain,” said William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees. “Well, that’s great, but the average furloughed federal worker makes between $25,000 and $75,000 a year, and these guys are making six figures.”

Carol Bonosaro, director of the Senior Executive Association, said she is concerned that if enough Cabinet members give up some pay, the pressure on senior executives below them will build. “And for some of them with kids in college, that might pose a difficulty.”

In Congress, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) announced in February they would donate part of their earnings to protest the sequester.

On Wednesday, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) did the same and said he will furlough 26 staff members through the rest of the fiscal year.

“There is no reason that members of Congress shouldn’t feel the pinch like everyone else,” Begich said in a statement.

The offices of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who earns $223,500 annually, and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who makes $193,400 per year, would not say Wednesday whether they plan to take pay cuts.

Among top leaders, only House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has said she opposes congressional pay cuts.

Before the congressional recess, the Senate approved a measure by Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) that urged — but did not require — senators to forgo 20 percent of their salary during sequestration. Graham, who strongly opposes steep military spending cuts that are part of sequestration, plans to donate at least $34,000 of his earnings. A spokesman said he has mentioned the American Cancer Society and the Wounded Warriors Project as possible beneficiaries.

Other senators — including Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) — have introduced similar proposals.

McCaskill and Nelson put forth a plan to cut congressional pay if federal agencies furloughed workers. The proposal failed, but a spokesman said McCaskill still plans to donate as much as 10 percent of her salary to charity or return it to the Treasury.

Scott Wilson, Alice Crites and Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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