Workforce

Murkowski optimistic on funding deal: 'We're going to get this figured out'

By Orhan Cam Royalty-free stock photo ID: 546416560 United States Capitol Building in Washington DC USA 

On the sidelines of a federal union legislative conference, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she thought lawmakers would avoid a repeat of the partial government shutdown that saw 800,000 federal employees furloughed or working without pay.

"You know what, it's Monday," she said. "Friday is a lifetime away. We're going to get this figured out."

Murkowski's optimism appeared well founded, as congressional negotiators said late Monday night that they had reached an "agreement in principle" to fund the federal government through fiscal year 2019.  According to press reports, the deal includes $1.375 billion for border barriers, including 55 new miles of wall or fencing, and a reduction in the number of detention beds maintained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It's unclear, however, whether President Donald Trump will sign such bill -- assuming the deal holds and it reaches his desk.

Federal employee unions are preparing for either outcome.  Those organizations spent much of January pushing for an end the shutdown, protesting in and out of Washington, D.C. Now they're putting their weight behind a legislative agenda that also includes securing pay raises and rolling back legislation that makes it easier to fire employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"We're going on the offense on Capitol Hill," said American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox at the union's conference on Feb. 11.

AFGE legislative representative Alethea Predeoux said the union would be seeking a 2.6 percent pay raise in the final fiscal year 2019 bill -- the figure introduced by Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) and passed by the House on Jan. 30. For 2020, she said, the goal is a 3.6 percent pay raise.

Off-stage, Cox said he thinks the "best opportunity" to pass the pay raise for this year would likely be as part of a final 2020 appropriations package rather than a standalone bill.

In the House, while the majority of Republicans voted against the pay raise, there were 30 who voted in favor. And there may be some Republican support in the Senate, too.

Murkowski announced at the conference that she would co-sponsor the 2.6 percent pay raise push in the Senate. Murkowski also called the pay raise for feds a "priority," but acknowledged the challenge of getting the 2.6 percent figure into law.

"My job right now… is to go back over to the Hill and start rattling cages," she said.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), however, said that ultimately, whether the government stays open — and whether feds can expect a pay raise — is "up to Trump."

In the aftermath of the longest shutdown in American history, Cox lamented that many federal employees still have not received their proper pay totals, and some employees at the Census Bureau received their back pay only this past Friday due to system crash. He also said "a few" federal employees remain unpaid.

He also criticized the way that the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management handled the leadup to the shutdown, as well as their lack of communication during it.

Cox said during the 2013 shutdown, the administration set up "daily calls, sometimes several times a day, with OMB and OPM, with all of the unions representing federal workers… trying to update people on where we're at, what was going [on]."

During the most recent shutdown, Cox said, "occasionally, there would be an email," but generally, "this administration chose to communicate absolutely nothing." He added that Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) "called AFGE every day, communicating with us every day."

Cox said the relationship between the unions and the administration's personnel and management offices "doesn't exist" and the agencies are "not responding" to union efforts to communicate.

"Their philosophy is ignore us and we'll go away, and we're not going anywhere," he said.

In the preparation for another shutdown, Cox said that in addition to advising members about conserving resources as best they can, AFGE is already gearing up for protests to take place "a lot quicker" relative to January.

He added that the senators who vote against reopening government should expect protests similar to the one outside Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) office that resulted in several arrests.

"I can promise you there will be people there, and the Capitol Hill police will be very, very busy," said Cox.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.

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