Obama co-opts GOP federal pay freeze

President Obama on Monday proposed a two-year pay freeze for civilian federal workers, stealing a play from the Republican handbook in the process.

The move represents the first time Obama has fully embraced a Republican idea on spending cuts since the election, and the proposal can be seen as either an olive branch to newly empowered Republicans or a Clintonesque attempt to co-opt their ideas.

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Unions and liberal groups ripped the decision, accusing the White House of siding against the middle class and pursuing bad policy and politics. Republicans pointed out that they first had suggested a pay freeze and complained Obama was not going far enough.

The decision comes as the lame-duck session of Congress reconvenes to tackle a host of fiscal issues, including an extension of the Bush tax cuts and approval of spending bills for the next fiscal year. Congress may also consider a report from Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission that could be released this week.

In a press briefing, Obama called for Republicans and Democrats to come together with a renewed sense of sobriety in dealing with the federal deficit, beginning with the pay freeze. “The hard truth is that getting this deficit under control is going to require some hard sacrifice,” Obama said.

The White House is seeking congressional action this month on the proposal so the pay freeze can go into effect on Jan. 1, an administration official said. The White House estimates that denying workers a 1.4 percent increase in 2011 and 3.9 percent increase in 2012 will save $2 billion in 2011 and $28 billion over five years.

The criticism from liberal groups and praise from some Republicans for the pay freeze proposal echoed Washington politics after the 1994 election, when President Bill Clinton responded to a midterm defeat for House and Senate Democrats with his policy of “triangulation.” Clinton sought to present some Republican ideas as his own to insulate his administration from criticism while taking credit for GOP ideas.

But the extent to which Obama’s move is a precursor to a new round of triangulation remains unclear. Aside from proposing the federal pay freeze, Obama also has offered support for the earmark ban adopted by House and Senate Republicans.

House Republican Whip Eric Cantor (Va.) noted that he had brought a proposal for a federal pay freeze to the House floor in May, only to have that proposal rejected by House Democrats. He said he was “pleased that President Obama appears ready to join our efforts.”

Cantor and other House Republicans also pointed out that their “Pledge to America” midterm election platform called for a net hiring freeze for non-security-related federal workers, a more extensive cut in spending than a pay freeze.

“Without a hiring freeze, a pay freeze won’t do much to rein in a federal bureaucracy that added hundreds of thousands of employees to its payroll over the last two years while the private sector shed millions of jobs,” incoming Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement.

Federal employee union leaders said the president was playing politics with worker paychecks.

“If it’s not public relations or political, you tell me what it is,” said John Gage, the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees union. “This decision was made because they are panicked. The deficit commission report is coming and everyone expects there will be draconian cuts in there. They wanted to get on the bandwagon.”

House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) offered the faintest praise for Obama’s idea, saying he would “review” the proposal but avoiding a pledge to take it up in the lame-duck session. He also said including the military in the pay freeze would have increased savings and added “an element of fairness.”

Three liberal advocacy groups blasted a pay freeze as damaging to the economic recovery. John Irons of the Economic Policy Institute, Tamara Draut of Demos and Greg Anrig of The Century Foundation said it was a mistake to freeze pay until the economic recovery takes hold more firmly.

Gage said it was bad politics on Obama’s part to cave to Republican demands off the bat since Boehner would likely come back with a more draconian proposal, such as a five-year pay freeze. He added that the Republican proposal for a net hiring freeze would jeopardize critical programs.

Steve Ellis, vice president of the Taxpayers for Common Sense, said he is hopeful that Obama proposed the pay freeze as a confidence-building measure that will encourage fruitful spending negotiations with Republicans.

He said that freezing federal pay is not a purely Republican issue and it polls with the public better even than a ban on earmarks. At the same time, he cautioned a pay freeze is only a “stepping stone” toward the large-scale reforms, such as tackling entitlement spending, that both sides must contemplate to rein in the deficit.

Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Jeffrey Zients told reporters Monday that the administration would also be willing to go further by considering reductions in the federal workforce as part of the 2012 budget process to reduce the budget deficit.

He described the proposal to freeze pay as the first of a number of painful steps that will need to be taken to deal with the budget deficit.

“We believe this is the first in many difficult steps ahead that we will be taking in the upcoming budget to put our nation on a sound fiscal footing, steps that will ask us all to sacrifice,” he said.

This story was originally posted at 12:34 p.m. and updated at 8:26 p.m.