White House asks Congress to keep firefighters from falling off the pay cliff

The Biden administration is trying to address some more immediate spending needs through a supplemental request that will come up before Congress can pass the 2...

Wildland firefighters could see a dramatic pay cut unless Congress acts by Oct. 1. The White House is trying to head off the end to the temporary pay raise with a $60 million request to Congress.

The Biden administration is asking lawmakers to approve additional funding for wildland firefighters as part of a $40 billion supplemental funding request for the first quarter of fiscal 2024 to address immediate priorities that can’t wait until Congress passes the full-year funding bill.

“Just as the Congress and the administration came together to reach a funding agreement for the current fiscal year that delivers for the American people, I am confident that we can do the same for 2024. But with the end of the fiscal year quickly approaching, today, the administration is transmitting a supplemental funding request to the Congress to address three sets of critical needs for emergency funding as part of a potential short-term continuing resolution for the first quarter of 2024,” Shalanda Young, the director of the Office of Management and Budget wrote to lawmakers.

The request to Congress includes $24 billion for additional assistance to Ukraine, $4 billion for southwest border security, including migration and illegal drug intervention, and $12 billion for the disaster relief fund at FEMA and wildland firefighter pay.

The timing of the request to keep paying wildland firefighters at their current level comes as more Americans have been affected by wild fires than in recent memory.

“Throughout the summer, more than 120 million Americans have experienced significant smoke drift from historic wildfire activity. As part of the administration’s comprehensive response to increased wildfires due to the climate crisis, the administration is committed to building a more robust and resilient wildland firefighter workforce and fairly compensating wildland firefighters for the difficult and dangerous work they do,” Young wrote. “Without congressional action, more than 20,000 heroic firefighters would face a pay cliff starting as soon as October, with salaries being cut to as low as $15 an hour.”

The supplemental request includes $45 million for the Agriculture Department and $15 million for the Interior Department to make up for the end of funding for a pay raise the firefighters received through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. Under the infrastructure law, federal firefighters received a raise of either $20,000 or 50% of their annual base salary, whichever number is lower.

Lawmakers have been trying to make the pay raise permanent through the Wildland Firefighter Paycheck Protection Act, introduced in July. The bill would codify a base pay raise for those frontline responders. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the bill July 19.

The House introduced a companion bill earlier this week. Both the Senate and House bills have bi-partisan support.

“I think there is bipartisan understanding of the need to provide firefighter pay to prevent the cliff that will result due to the end of the exhaustion of Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funding. I think we’re pleased by the progress that we see from members on both sides of the aisle in Congress around proposals that are in line with what the President put forward in the fiscal 2024 budget. Just to be clear, within the supplemental, essentially we want to provide the funding for basic pay that would go along with those reforms,” said a senior administration official during a call with reporters yesterday. “As we’re seeing right now, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, the need here is strong. I think that’s reflected in the progress we’ve seen in the conversations we’ve had with members of Congress. I think there is work to do, but we are hopeful about our ability to come together given that pending cliff.”

The administration also requested to make the pay raise permanent as part of its fiscal 2024 budget request to Congress sent in March.

In addition to the USDA and Interior special requests, the White House wants Congress to provide FEMA with $12 billion for the disaster relief fund.

“The request here is to refill a disaster relief fund, which addresses and provides resources to meet immediate and ongoing needs across the country, both for disasters that have happened recently, and of course, to prepare for anything that will happen,” the official said. “We’re obviously monitoring closely what’s happening in Hawaii, and we’ll continue to, along with leaders in the state, assess what might be necessary in the future. As we assess the $12 billion shortfall, that reflects both needs that we’ve seen recently and also our best projections of what we expect through the end of the fiscal year.”

The White House also wants $2.65 billion for the Homeland Security Department for border management operations and to counter illegal drugs. Additionally, the administration is asking for $59 million for the Justice Department for the Executive Office of Immigration Review immigration judges as well as money for the departments of Labor, Health and Human Services and State and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

The bulk of the request is for more assistance for Ukraine, with $13.1 billion for the Defense Department to provide military equipment and replenish its own stocks of weapons. Additionally, State and USAID would receive $8.5 billion for humanitarian, economic and other aid.

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