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House votes to extend federal pay freezes

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives, seeking to cut the U.S. deficit and burnish its own tarnished image, passed a bill on Wednesday to extend a pair of pay freezes for federal workers, including one for lawmakers.

The 309-117 vote seemed largely symbolic, however, since the Senate is expected to reject the election-year measure.

Democrats said they agree that lawmakers should not get a pay hike while Americans struggle with a weak economy. But many argued that workers in federal agencies deserve one.

Obama has proposed a modest 0.5 percent cost-of-living increase for federal workers.

But House Republicans, who have made cutting the budget deficit their top priority, voted to extend the pay freeze for these workers to the end of 2013.

With Congress's approval rating at rock bottom, the bill would also prevent a pay hike for lawmakers, whose salaries have stood at $174,000 since January 2009.

Democrats accused Republicans of making federal workers "scapegoats" and of playing politics with the pay freeze.

By combining an extension of the pay freeze for federal workers with one for lawmakers, Republicans forced Democrats back the measure or face campaign backlash, critics said.

Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer noted that if lawmakers opposed the bill, their opponents in November elections could accuse them of voting to increase their pay at a time of fiscal restraint.

"Very clever," Hoyer said. "A very good 30-second ad."

While Republicans have cut spending for some government programs since taking control of the House in January 2011, the cuts were not enough to satisfy many in their ranks.

Republican Rep. Sean Duffy, a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement, offered the bill. "We must act now to extend the pay freeze on federal workers and on members' salaries until Washington finally gets its finances under control," he said.

(Reporting By Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

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