Pensions targeted in debt reduction

WASHINGTON — The generous pension system enjoyed by millions of federal workers has emerged as a key target in negotiations between Vice President Joe Biden and congressional leaders looking to restrain the growing national debt.

Republicans have proposed saving more than $120 billion over the next decade by requiring the civilian workforce to contribute more toward retirement — a plan that would effectively impose an immediate 5 percent pay cut on more than 2 million federal employees. President Obama's fiscal commission has also endorsed the idea, calling the federal system "out of line" with the private sector.

Now, administration officials have expressed interest in raising the amount that employees contribute to their pensions — though probably not as high as the GOP proposal, definitely not as fast and possibly not for all workers, according to people in both parties familiar with the discussions.

If adopted as part of a compromise plan to control federal borrowing, the proposal promises to test the resolve of local lawmakers — particularly Democrats — by forcing them to choose between the lofty goal of debt reduction and the interests of public-sector workers, who have come under fire from Republicans in Washington and several state capitals.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., may be the first to face that dilemma. One of only six lawmakers at the table in the Biden talks, Van Hollen represents a suburban Washington district that is home to one of the nation's largest concentrations of federal employees.

Van Hollen has vocally opposed the GOP pension proposal, which was included in the budget blueprint that passed the House last month. He declined to comment on the closed-door talks at Blair House, which have already set off alarm bells among union leaders.

"We're very concerned," said Maureen Gilman, legislative and political director for the National Treasury Employees Union, noting that federal workers were hit in January with a two-year pay freeze.

"These are difficult times, and federal employees understand this," Gilman said. "But we'd like to see some other people in the shared pot for sacrifice before anybody comes back to us for seconds."

The proposal to change pension funding represents one of the plumpest pots of potential savings under discussion by the Biden group. The White House has not previously endorsed the idea, and a White House spokeswoman declined to comment, citing the private nature of the talks.

The issue illustrates the hard road ahead for policymakers trying to rebalance the federal budget. Participants in the Biden talks have temporarily set aside the most ideologically divisive issues, such as raising taxes and cutting entitlement benefits. But while the remaining targets are smaller, they are also guarded by a thicket of lobbyists and interest groups.