MSPs are due to back the budget at the first hurdle
Senior Scottish civil servants will have their pay frozen in the year ahead amid a "bleak" outlook for public spending, the government has said.
Finance Secretary John Swinney's announcement came as MSPs backed the 2010-11 Scottish budget in principle.
Mr Swinney is also considering Lib Dem demands to cut the pay of the highest public sector earners.
The minority SNP government's £35bn budget passed its first parliamentary hurdle with Tory backing.
Labour, which demanded the government re-instate the cancelled Glasgow Airport rail link (Garl), voted against, while the Lib Dems and Greens abstained.
In the debate, the frontbench speeches proceeded as anticipated.
Jeremy Purvis of the Lib Dems welcomed Mr Swinney's indications on top salaries - but stressed they would need more.
They want guarantees that the cash thus released would be spent productively on bolstering manufacturing and helping the young jobless.
Andy Kerr for Labour supported Garl.
It was, he said, a "weathervane" for the need to enhance the economy more generally in a time of stress.
I thought Mr Kerr was unwise to go on to accuse Mr Swinney of "arrogance" in presuming that every pound in his budget was wisely spent.
The minister had opened his remarks by insisting precisely the contrary: that he was open to other ideas.
The SNP government outlined its plans on the day new, official figures showed a decline in the Scottish economy and a rise in unemployment.
Mr Swinney told parliament the Budget Bill, which MSPs backed in principle by 64 votes to 46 with 18 abstentions, would protect frontline public services such as schools, hospitals and policing.
And he expressed a willingness to work on concessions with rival parties - but said they must be realistic, amid cuts imposed by Westminster efficiency savings.
"We debate this bill at a time when much remains uncertain, both in relation to the prospects for the global economy and to future spending decisions that may be taken by the United Kingdom government over the coming year," said Mr Swinney.
"However, despite the uncertainty that exists, there is general agreement that the outlook for the public finances appears bleak over the next few years."
The finance secretary said the budget included more than £1bn for transport, £2bn for education, £1.6bn for housing and an increase in police officers, while £1.6bn of efficiency savings over the year would go back into front line services.
Labour's Andy Kerr said the 2010-11 budget was rising by £847m from this year.
He added that the plans plans delivered "vanity projects" such as the referendum on independence and the Scottish Futures Trust alternative to PPP/PFI schemes.
"The Glasgow Airport Rail Link (Garl) is not a project for Labour, it's not a project for Glasgow, it's a project for the whole of Scotland," he said.
Tory finance spokesman Derek Brownlee echoed some of Labour's concerns, but also said the budget was taking place "under the shadow of Labour's recession".
He said: "Whoever wins the [UK] election, spending on devolved services in Scotland will have to fall because spending on debt interest and social security, before we even get to debt repayment, is going to reduce the amount of money we have available."
Liberal Democrat finance spokesman Jeremy Purvis said his party believed the budget "should be a better one for the economy" - and called for further guarantees before the party agreed to support it.
"Freeing up resources from those who can most afford it in the public sector in Scotland means the public sector can also focus on giving the opportunities for those who need it most," he said.
"And, at the moment, businesses are still struggling to access finance and young people are still being turned away from having opportunities for training and skills from colleges."
Parliament will be asked to give its final approval to the budget in the next fortnight.