Another year, another budget, another debate over pay parity.
For the fifth time in as many years, President Bush (search) has budgeted a bigger raise for military employees than federal civilian workers in his fiscal 2006 budget.
And in what has become a Capitol Hill (search) tradition, lawmakers and labor unions say they will fight to close the gap between the two groups, as they have done in 17 of the last 19 years. The fight has already begun this year, with a letter circulated among senators last week calling for "pay parity."
While Congress almost always gets its way, both sides still play the game.
"Billions of dollars do hang in the balance," said Pete Sepp, a spokesman for the National Taxpayers Union (search). "That's not necessarily chump change, something that the executive and legislative branch ought to just have a silent agreement over."
This year's dance began last month when the White House released a fiscal 2006 budget that proposed a 3.1 percent raise for military employees and a 2.3 percent increase for civilians in federal government.
"Both are based on ... what the federal government needs to do and what kind of talent we can attract," said Noam Neusner of the Office of Management and Budget (search), adding that the raises for both groups would be "healthy increases."
He said military and civilian raises don't need to occur together, with low turnover and high demand for already amply compensated federal jobs. And the president's budget would cut costs throughout government next year, he said.
"We believe that Congress will see the value of these proposals," he said.
But some lawmakers are already unconvinced.
"We ought to provide a fair pay adjustment for our military and federal civilian sectors," said Rep. Steny Hoyer, the House minority whip who has routinely supported pay parity among government workers.
"It is wrong to make federal employees feel that their country has to make a decision between paying them a fair wage or providing adequate funding for our national priorities," Hoyer said in a prepared statement. He said the yearly debate over pay parity "demeans our federal civilian work force by annually forcing them to fight for a fair wage."
Even when Congress approves pay parity, however, as it has done for each of Bush's years in office, the raise it gives civilian employees does not always match what some military members end up getting. Some military employees have also received a targeted pay raise according to rank and tenure, which increases the overall raises beyond the amount Congress was considering.
But union leaders say it is the message of pay parity that counts, that civilian employees need to feel that Congress values them equally compared with their military counterparts.
"We have never argued that the compensation package . . . should be identical," said Beth Moten, legislative and political director at the American Federation of Government Employees (search). The union represents 600,000 government workers and has been heavily involved in the pay-parity debate.
"We have an awful lot of members whose job it is to put soldiers into tanks (and) work side by side with enlisted and commissioned" military personnel, she said. For those civilians working alongside military service members, "It's a huge slap in the face if that January pay raise is not the same."
And so the stage is set for the next round of the debate, with both sides staking out familiar turf.
In one corner is Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md.
"Military personnel and federal civilian employees, both white-collar and blue-collar, work for the same employers, often side by side in the defense of our nation's homeland security," Mikulski said, adding that "they all earn and deserve" the same raise.
In the other corner, fiscal conservatives like Sepp.
"There are outfits like ours that can remind Congress, well, you had the chance to possibly explore billions of dollars in savings to put toward the federal deficit," he said. "You passed on it."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.