Federal workers dodged a bullet last month when the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction died without approving employee cuts or anything else.

But they are not out of the line of fire yet, nor will they be for some time.

The first demonstration of that came Wednesday when Senate Republicans proposed taking money from government workers to cover the cost of extending the payroll tax cut.

Legislation proposed by Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) would have, among other provisions, added three years to the two-year federal pay freeze. Instead of the freeze ending Dec. 31, 2012, it would have go through 2015. Heller said his plan was “treating taxpayers’ dollars responsibly.”

It certainly treats federal workers cavalierly.

Senate Republicans seem to forget that federal workers are contributing to deficit reduction by giving up $60 billion over 10 years through the current freeze. And the workforce certainly will take additional hits when the government cuts its budget by trillions of dollars as Uncle Sam tries to dig out of his deep financial hole.

But Heller’s legislation showed that while the failure of the joint “supercommittee” makes across the board cuts less likely, because they would have received expedited consideration with that panel’s approval, measures such as his remain a possibility. The probability that they can become law, however, is another question because of Democratic opposition. In fact, Heller’s bill was defeated Thursday night.

That opposition does not mean that talks about compensation are automatically rejected by Democrats, who want to fund the tax cut by taxing the rich.

Although he opposed Heller’s plan, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), the second-ranking Democrat in the House, has said, “Federal employees and I welcome a discussion on pay and benefits...” to strongly defend that compensation.

But in this environment, federal employees may have more to lose than to gain from that discussion.

Heller’s bill also would have cut the federal workforce by 10 percent through attrition. The legislation says, “The head of each agency may hire no more than 1 employee in that agency for every 3 full-time employees who leave employment in that agency.” The bill did allow for exemptions in cases of national security and other emergencies.

If cuts are inevitable, there are smarter ways to handle taxpayers’ dollars responsibly. The one-cut-size-fits-all approach would treat agencies the same, regardless of their circumstances.

Labor organizations including the broad-based Federal Workers Alliance and the Federal-Postal Coalition (with their overlapping memberships) denounced the Heller bill before the 20-78 vote.

National Federation of Federal Employees President William R. Dougan said it is “absolutely unacceptable.”

“It is despicable that our elected representatives in Washington would propose taking thousands from the pockets of VA nurses, border-patrol agents and food-safety inspectors simply to protect a small group of millionaires and billionaires,” he said.

Heller’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

American Federation of Government Employees President John Gage called the GOP plan “hypocrisy at its worst. I’d like lawmakers to explain to me how you create jobs and spur growth by cutting jobs and taking money out of the pockets of middle-class workers.”

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, contrasted the Republican proposal with the Democrats’ plan to impose a small tax on millionaires.

“This proposal makes clear that Senate Republicans stand firmly on the side of the wealthiest Americans and are turning their backs on middle-class families,” Kelley said.

She added: “Continually freezing federal pay farther and farther into the future and cutting agencies that provide needed services to the public without asking the wealthiest Americans to share in the sacrifice at all is not what the majority of Americans support.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D), who, like Hoyer, has a Maryland district with thousands of federal employees, called the Republican payroll tax proposal “another cynical ploy to single out federal employees for unfair treatment.”

In his letter to Congress, International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineer President Gregory J. Junemann said the freeze “represents up to a $50,000 pay cut, not counting interests earnings, for an individual [upper-level] employee over the next decade. . . . However, that has not stopped some in Congress, including this latest attempt, to target federal employees again.”

This attempt will not be the last.

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