WASHINGTON - The federal government's civilian employees have worked under a salary freeze for about two years, but their incomes will begin to rise after March 27 unless Congress acts to once again halt their salary increases.
Lawmakers are expected to take up the matter in coming months as they address the debt limit and the automatic spending cuts delayed under a "fiscal cliff" deal that President Barack Obama signed Wednesday.
Obama, who imposed the freeze in 2010 to curtail federal spending, issued an executive order last month to implement a 0.5 percent across-the-board increase for lawmakers and federal employees after the last short-term spending plan expires March 27.
Congress could try to override the executive order with legislation extending the freeze, but Obama would have to sign the measure. He has indicated for months that he wants the 0.5 percent hike, which is less than the increase lawmakers have generally allowed for federal workers.
The GOP-controlled House approved a bill Tuesday to extend the pay freeze for federal workers and members of Congress through 2013, but the Democratic-led Senate didn't vote on the measure. The legislation died as the new Congress convened Thursday.
This week, federal labor leaders criticized the GOP-sponsored bill. In a statement Tuesday, J. David Cox Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, called the measure a "cheap political ploy."
Federal unions say their members have sacrificed a combined $103 billion in the past two years through a two-year pay freeze, a short-term delay in pay increases for 2013 and an increase in pension contributions by new hires.
"We're the only group that gave anything to deficit reduction prior to the tax deal" that avoided the fiscal cliff, said Jacqueline Simon, the AFGE public-policy director.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., a proponent of the GOP pay bill, has argued that federal workers make more than their private-sector counterparts. As proof, his office pointed to a 2012 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that found the federal government pays 16 percent more than nongovernment employers for similar jobs. Unions have attacked the study's methodology.