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Deficit reduction is one of the top priorities of Republican leaders in the new Congress. And the debate over where to cut government spending is likely to get heated in the coming months. The GOP is already pointing to the Federal workforce, which some Republicans believe is too big and overpaid.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: They're a tempting target for Republican deficit cutters, the nation's two million Federal workers. Here's the man likely to be the House majority leader in the next Congress, Republican Eric Cantor speaking on CNN the morning after voters swept his party into power.

Representative ERIC CANTOR (Republican, Virginia): The Federal bureaucracy has grown at a pace unseen certainly in the private sector. We've seen pay scales of Federal employees grow nearly double in some cases to those market rates. We've got to bring those down to a level which reflects the marketplace today. That will save billions of dollars, as well.

NAYLOR: How many billions of dollars could be cut from the budget if Federal salaries are capped or cut? Well, according to the Heritage Foundation, taxpayers would save $47 billion if Federal workers were paid at the same rate as private sector employees.

James Sherk, a researcher with Heritage, says the Federal pay system is badly broken.

Mr. JAMES SHERK (Senior Analyst, Heritage Foundation): On average, the government is paying its typical employee 30 to 40 percent more in total benefits, so both wages and salaries, than the similarly educated and skilled private sector would receive. But, of course, that's just an average figure. There are in fact some Federal employees who are getting underpaid, because the Federal pay system doesnt reward experience or hard work - it's basically entirely seniority based.

Republican Jason Chaffetz of Utah may have a big say about what Republicans in Congress do about Federal salaries this year. Hes now the top Republican on the subcommittee, with oversight of the Federal workforce, and could wind up as chairman of the panel. Chaffetz says private employers have tighten their belts and it's time for the Federal government to do the same.

Representative JASON CHAFFETZ (Republican, Utah): We're going to have to figure out how to do more with less, and a significant portion of our budget is the Federal payroll. So, as a Republican, I want to live up to the obligation made in the Pledge to America, and that is to freeze the hiring and cap Federal pay.

NAYLOR: But not everyone agrees with the Republicans' numbers on Federal wages. The government itself, in a recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said Federal workers actually make about than 22 percent less than their private sector counterparts. It's widely accepted by both sides that the government's highest paid employees - government prosecutors, VA doctors and researchers - those folks do earn much less working for Uncle Sam then they likely would in the private sector.

John Gage is president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest union for government workers. Gage says most government workers are not getting rich.

Mr. JOHN GAGE (President, American federation of Government Employees): Some of these wages, I mean people really have to look at. You know, a Border Patrol agent makes $34,000. Meat and poultry inspectors, 31,000. VA nursing assistant in Chicago, 27,000. So there's really a lot of misinformation. But the going after Federal pay is more ideological rather than a fiscal solution.

NAYLOR: Paul Light, a professor of public service at NYU, who specializes in the Federal workforce, says cutting Federal salaries or jobs has been tried before. It doesn't usually save much and may end up costing taxpayers even more.

Professor PAUL LIGHT (Public Service, New York University): Largely because the jobs migrate to contractors or the jobs are eventually filled in other ways. It's not a way to save money. It is a way, if done well, to improve government performance. But that may involve significant injections of new money for things like better technology, better training and so forth.

NAYLOR: Light notes that there are already three times the number of government contractors than direct employees. The chairman of the Federal Deficit Commission, meanwhile, yesterday added more fuel to the fire, suggesting a three year freeze on Federal salaries and a 10 percent cut in the number of Federal workers.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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