Feb. 6, 2013 – 3:25 p.m.

Amid Lawmaker Sparring on Sequester, Agencies Alert on Possible Furloughs

Federal agencies have started alerting workers of possible furloughs if sequestration begins as scheduled March 1, as the pressure increases on Congress to find a legislative alternative to the automatic, across-the-board spending cuts.

The communications are based on a draft circulated to agency heads by the White House Office of Management and Budget. But agency heads have the latitude to tailor the memo to the department they lead.

A memo sent to Interior Department employees Tuesday differs slightly from a draft memo that CQ Roll Call reported on earlier this week, adding language relating to collective bargaining requirements and agency mission requirements.

The notice was delivered the same day President Barack Obama asked Congress to find a temporary fix for the $85 billion sequester, which Obama said should offset the automatic spending cuts for several months with alternative spending cuts and revenue increases.

House and Senate Republicans have rejected any notion of raising taxes again after the fiscal cliff deal (PL 112-240), which is projected to generate more than $600 billion in revenue over the next 10 years. With barely three weeks before the onset of the sequester, lawmakers are raising the heat on debates over provisions that would make up a possible alternative, particularly the tax revenue that Democrats say should be part of a replacement plan.

On Wednesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland tangled over GOP plans to push to continue a federal employee pay freeze next week and what Hoyer said was a lack of urgency among Republicans to stop sequestration.

Noting that House GOP leaders have not introduced a proposal to stop sequestration in the current session of Congress, Hoyer said, “we’re not going to get away from the sequester unless there’s legislation that you bring to this floor, and you have the authority to do that.”

Cantor said the House twice passed legislation last year to replace sequestration with alternative cuts in mandatory spending programs and that it died in the Senate. “Let’s get to the problem that is causing the mounting deficits,” he said. “It’s a lack of growth and it’s the spending that’s out of control.”

Other federal agencies are expected in coming days to circulate the furlough memo to their employees.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the main union representing government workers, faulted the Obama administration for ignoring cost savings that could be achieved by scrutinizing government contracts.

“With respect to civilian workers, it seems that everything is on the table: hiring freezes, furloughs, terminating temporary or term employees and encouraging our most seasoned workers to separate or retire,” AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. said in a statement. “Yet OMB still hasn’t given agencies any useful or explicit guidance for reducing spending on service contracts.”

The memo said any furloughs would come after at least 30 days’ notice to affected workers “or in accordance with the designated representative collective bargaining agreement as appropriate.”

OMB has stressed the need to preserve the most important functions of each agency if sequestration occurs. The memo that went out Tuesday said officials “will also continue to engage in discussions with employee unions as appropriate, to ensure that any furloughs are applied in an appropriate manner meeting agency mission requirements.”