Republicans have proposed cutting the federal workforce and benefits in past efforts to reduce the deficit, though it is unclear whether those changes are being entertained as part of the current talks.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, on Wednesday defended more than two dozen organizations, which represent five million active and retired federal employees such as postal workers, firefighters, air-traffic controllers and federal veterinarians.
During a conference call hosted by the National Treasury Employees Union, Mr. Van Hollen said: "Now is the time to ask others to share responsibility to help reduce our deficit, especially high-income earners for whom the president has proposed should pay a little bit more."
In an op-ed in the Federal Times earlier this month, House Democratic Whip Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland wrote: "Instead of treating federal employees as a convenient offset, we should recognize them for what they are: an outstanding asset." Mr. Hoyer represents thousands of federal employees in Maryland's Fifth District.
Republicans who represent many federal workers, including Rep. Robert Wittman (R., Va.) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R., Va.), have told the White House and congressional leaders that federal employees are struggling like other Americans and have already made pay concessions.
"The Obama administration and the Congress—both political parties—have pretty much thrown the federal employee under the bus," Mr. Wolf said in an interview Thursday. "Everybody has to participate, and as of now it's only been the federal employee," he said. He also said it's unclear if his concerns about federal workers are being taken seriously in the budget talks.
Republican Leaders in the House and Senate wouldn't comment specifically about federal workers' role in budget-cut talks. A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Michael Brumas, said the Kentucky Republican "has been consistent in the view that further spending reductions are necessary and, unlike the Democrats, has kept options on the table."
The most immediate concern of federal worker groups is that, if lawmakers don't reach a deal to avert automatic spending cuts set to begin in January, a large number of federal workers could lose jobs or be furloughed. Union officials say tens of thousands of federal workers face job cuts or limited hours.
The American Federation of Government Employees—the largest federal employee union representing more than 600,000 workers—has already reviewed the hundreds of collective-bargaining contracts covering its members at federal agencies such as the Social Security Administration and the Department of Defense.
"Our interest is in making sure our members are treated according to the contracts and laws and regulations," AFGE President J. David Cox said in a recent interview.
For example, there are legal provisions that can require laid-off workers to be given other government jobs that become available if they qualify, Mr. Cox said. The union's officials have started meeting with officials at the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget and have been assured that the contracts and government regulations would be followed, Mr. Cox said.
The coalition of federal worker groups aims to pressure lawmakers in the coming weeks nationwide through email and call-in campaigns and in-person visits.
The Department of Defense is likely to impose a hiring freeze very quickly after Jan. 2 to its civilian workforce if a deal isn't reached, said Army Lt. Col. Elizabeth Robbins. Some furlough notices would start being sent a few weeks after that, she said.
At U.S. courts, there are no nationally mandated furloughs or court closures. Still, "there are courts that clearly will not have enough money to make payroll," said spokesman David Sellers. Smaller courthouses could have to cut hours, affecting pay for security guards.
At the national level, the judiciary conference is recommending major cuts for information technology, travel and training to try to help preserve staff. After that, an estimated 2,000 positions could be affected in various ways, including through furloughs or layoffs, said Mr. Sellers. Courts could also lack money to pay jurors and court-appointed lawyers.
In a speech to the National Aeronautic Association on Tuesday, Aerospace Industries Association President Marion C. Blakey cautioned that automatic cuts would slash NASA's budget by $1.5 billion and could also result in the loss of 229,000 non-defense federal jobs.
"With a cut like this, you're going to see jobs cut that include border-patrol agents from DHS, meat inspectors from the FDA, air-traffic controllers, workplace safety inspectors—you name it," she said.