WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Monday proposed a two-year freeze of the salaries of some 2 million federal workers, trying to seize the deficit-cutting initiative from Republicans with a sudden, dramatic stroke. Though signaling White House concern over record deficits, the freeze would make only a tiny dent in annual deficits or the nation's $14 trillion debt.
"Small businesses and families are tightening their belts," Obama said in brief remarks at the White House. "The government should, too." The administration said the plan was designed to save more than $5 billion over the first two years.
The proposal, which must be approved by Congress, would not apply to the military, but it would affect all others on the Executive Branch payroll. It would not affect members of Congress or their staffs, defense contractors, postal workers or federal court judges and workers.
Obama's move was an attempt to get in front of Republican plans to slash federal pay and the workforce next year, when they will flex more legislative muscle than now. It came a day ahead of Obama's meeting at the White House with both Republicans and Democratic leaders — his first with Republicans since the midterm elections — and two days before the deadline for recommendations by his deficit-reduction commission.
The president said the economy and federal spending were at the top of the agenda for Tuesday's meeting, one he said he hoped "will mark a first step towards a new and productive working relationship" between the two parties. Because of GOP midterm gains, "we now have a shared responsibility to deliver for the American people on the issues that define not only these times but our future," Obama said.
House Republican leader John Boehner of Ohio, on track to become House speaker in January, said he was pleased with the president's announcement.
"Republicans and Democrats don't have to wait until January to cut spending and stop all the tax hikes. We can — and should — start right now," Boehner said in a statement. He also suggested that Obama was taking a page from the GOP playbook.
The freeze would take effect on Jan. 1, assuming the lame-duck Congress approves the move by the end of this year. The 2012 pay freeze will be included by Obama as part of his fiscal 2012 budget submission to Congress, due early next year.
In the past, Congress has generally gone along with presidential recommendations on federal worker pay levels.