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Washington • Up to 100,000 federal workers could be fired for owing back taxes under legislation passed by the House on Tuesday aimed at curbing a growing debt owed to the United States by its own employees.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, allows a government agency to lay off workers who are found to have a "seriously delinquent tax debt" and for the government to refuse to hire anyone who applies for a job with the same circumstances.

More than 98,000 federal employees owe more than $1 billion in taxes, according to the most recent numbers from the Internal Revenue Service.

"This is a billion dollar problem in search of a solution," Chaffetz said on the House floor. "This is the solution."

The House voted 263-114 to pass the measure, with all three Utah members in the majority, though it may be dead on arrival in the Senate where Democrats control the agenda.

Some Democrats and unions opposed the measure Tuesday, saying the legislation was a partisan move to try and embarrass federal workers rather than collect back taxes.

"We all agree that everyone, including federal workers should pay their taxes," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. "However, the overwhelming majority of federal workers take their income tax obligation seriously. The tax-compliance rate for federal employees is much higher than for the American public."

William R. Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees, which includes some 110,000 government workers, said Chaffetz's bill is "overly prescriptive and poorly timed."

"It is unreasonable to lump federal workers who recently fell behind on their payments after suffering a serious injury, or whose spouse is out of work, with another who has intentionally dodged their tax obligations," Dougan said. "Rather than proposing a solution in search of a problem, we need to seek more responsible means of dealing with the tax-delinquency issue."

Chaffetz's bill allows four exemptions for federal workers who are substantially remiss on paying their taxes: If they have an approved installment plan, are awaiting a hearing, have agreed to a levy arrangement or if the government determines there is an economic hardship for the taxpayer.

"We're not trying to cut someone off at the knees if they're doing the right thing," Chaffetz said on the floor.

Members of the military are exempt from the law as well.

Federal civilian workers with 'seriously delinquent' tax debt:

2004: 102,794 / $599.8 million

2005: 110,851 / $681.3 million

2006: 102,962 / $693.4 million

2007: 102,213 / $844.4 million

2008: 97,200 / $962.1 million

2009: 99,036 / $1.002 billion

2010: 98,291 / $1.03 billion

Source: Internal Revenue Service

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