CONGRESS • BY MARK MILLER, CNS
Eight of the 10 members of Maryland’s congressional delegation voted Friday to reject a bipartisan compromise on extending the payroll tax cut and unemployment benefits, with leading Democratic members criticizing the legislation’s cuts to federal employees’ pension programs.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Kensington, and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, were members of the House-Senate conference committee that produced the agreement. Both supported the compromise language in committee, but both voted against it on the floor of their respective chambers.
“While this conference report does many good things, it’s time to send a message to stop scapegoating our federal employees,” Van Hollen said on the House floor during debate on the bill.
All seven Democrats who voted against the agreement said they support the main provisions of the bill, which would extend the 2 percent reduction in payroll taxes through the end of the year while continuing to fund benefits for jobless Americans while they look for work. But they objected to language requiring new federal hires to pay 3.1 percent of their salaries into their pensions — a 2.3-point increase over current practice — saying efforts to reduce the federal budget have unfairly targeted civilian government employees.
In a statement released after the vote, Cardin acknowledged his committee vote in favor of the compromise, but denounced the finished product as unsatisfactory.
“I signed the document that allowed this process to move forward because I believe there is too much gridlock on Capitol Hill,” Cardin’s statement read in part. “Unfortunately, the final conference agreement does include increased pension contributions for new federal workers starting in 2013. … There are some lawmakers who have decided to target federal workers as scapegoats for our fiscal mess and I will not support such actions.”
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Mechanicsville, inveighed against the bill from the floor. He gestured emphatically and often shouted as he denounced concessions demanded by Republicans that he said would hurt federal workers, who make up a significant share of Maryland’s workforce.
“Nobody is targeted in this bill other than federal employees,” Hoyer said. “You can tell I’m angry, because that’s not fair.”
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., described herself as “volcanic” over the agreement, even though she said she supports the basic agreement on the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance.
“But I’ll be darned if I agree to pay for it by cutting payments to hospitals that serve the poor and asking civil servants to take another cut in their pensions when billionaires don’t have to contribute a dime,” an emailed release from Mikulski’s office quoted her as saying.
The only Maryland Democrat to vote in favor of the compromise language was Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Cockeysville, who did not speak during the floor debate but released a statement through his press secretary, Jaime Lennon, after the agreement’s 293-132 adoption.
“When you’re in the minority party, you don’t have the luxury of holding out for a perfect bill,” Ruppersberger’s statement said. “I voted for this legislation because it will deliver immediate relief to the most Americans and residents of my district today. … But I look forward to a political climate which will enable us to negate the damage this bill does to the future federal workforce.”
Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick, also voted for the compromise, saying in a written release, “This was a really tough vote because we’re helping people who are really hurting. However, balancing one year of spending on the backs of federal workers over the next 10 years is neither fair, nor sustainable. It is not shared sacrifice to scapegoat new federal workers.”
Harris, the only Republican in Maryland’s congressional delegation to vote against the conference report’s adoption, opposed it from the right.
His statement said the agreement, which fails to provide a funding mechanism for the tax cut, was “the kind of bad fiscal policy which got us into the mess we’re in.”
The finalized bill will now go to President Barack Obama for approval. Obama is widely expected to sign it into law over the weekend.