Md.'s Democratic power players leading push against cuts to federal workers

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The power players in the Maryland congressional delegation are pressuring Democratic leaders to oppose any new cuts affecting federal workers as part of a budget deal.

The lawmakers, who hold prominent spots in both chambers and represent thousands of federal employees, have long argued that those workers have been hit disproportionately amid efforts to cut deficit spending.

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As the high-stakes negotiations of the latest budget conference continue ahead of its Dec. 13 deadline for a deal — and as federal benefit cuts are among the suggested ways to offset the sequester — the Maryland lawmakers are looking to leadership to help scuttle such proposals before they work their way into a final agreement.

In their weekly meeting with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), several ranking members of prominent committees made clear Wednesday that they oppose any new cuts for federal workers.

“Federal employees have become the whipping folks whenever there’s a need for money or some kind of offset,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the senior Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee and a participant in the meeting, said afterward. “I think it’s totally unfair, and I think you would hear that from most of us from Maryland and Virginia.”

Cummings said Pelosi “sounded like she was dead set against any more takeaways from federal employees.”

Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a close Pelosi ally who is ranking member of the House Budget Committee, also argued against new federal workforce cuts, Cummings said.

Pelosi’s office on Wednesday declined to confirm that the minority leader signaled an opposition to such cuts. But an official was quick to note Pelosi’s long-held position that the sequester should be replaced with a more targeted and balanced approach to deficit reduction.

“Leader Pelosi’s record on replacing the sequester is clear,” the official said in an email.

The issue could put Democratic leaders like Pelosi in a bind because President Obama included $20 billion in cuts affecting federal employees as part of his 2014 budget proposal. That figure is much lower than the cuts in Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget, but House Republicans are using Obama’s proposal as leverage in the effort to scale back the sequester.

Indeed, on Tuesday, Reps. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) and Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) introduced legislation to eliminate the sequester’s defense cuts and cover the cost, in part, by adopting Obama’s $20 billion in federal employee cuts.

The movement toward using those provisions as an offset has ignited a firestorm of opposition from federal employee unions and groups — including the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association (NARFE), the National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) — which are scrambling this week to head off the cuts before they gain too much momentum.

“No other group of American workers has been asked to give financially to their country the way federal employees have,” NARFE President Joseph Beaudoin wrote Wednesday to Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who are leading the budget talks.

He wasn’t the only one grabbing his pen.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), head of the Senate Appropriations Committee, wrote a similar letter Wednesday to the heads of the budget conference blasting proposals to scale back federal pay and benefits.

“As you continue working toward a budget agreement, I’m writing to urge you to reach a deal that acknowledges the value of federal employees by avoiding sequester for at least two years and rejecting draconian proposals to require federal employees to pay substantially more for their retirement,” she wrote to Ryan and Murray.

“Federal employees have been undervalued and underappreciated for too long.”

The push is not limited to Maryland Democrats. Members of the Virginia delegation, who also represent an outsized proportion of federal employees, are busy urging leaders to resist any new cuts. 

“It’s been forcefully advocated that we are tired of debt-reduction measures on the backs of the federal workforce,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said Wednesday. 

“I don’t think there’s a lot of daylight between [us] and our leadership.” 

Murray and Ryan met Wednesday to say that no budget deal has been reached but the sides are making progress. 

“We are closer every hour,” Murray said. 

Supporters of the sequester cuts are quick to point out that many of the critics were the same lawmakers who voted to create the automatic cuts to begin with, as part of the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Yet, while many of those lawmakers acknowledge their role in establishing the cuts, they’re also regretting it. 

“Had I thought the sequester was going to take effect, I would not have supported the Budget Control Act,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said last month.