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Feingold Plans Last-Ditch Effort to Block COLA

With President Bush calling for sacrifice in the wake of his request for $87 billion to fund the reconstruction of Iraq, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) is calling on his colleagues to block a pay hike for Members of Congress.

“Congress should not be giving itself a pay raise at this time, the fifth straight pay boost in as many years,” Feingold said. “I intend to offer an amendment to stop the scheduled $3,400 hike at the earliest opportunity.”

The House last week ignored a similar plea from Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) to block the automatic 2.2 percent cost-of-living adjustment.

Unless the Senate blocks the COLA, rank-and-file House Members and Senators will see their salaries boosted in 2004 to $158,000 per year, up from the current level of $154,700.

As in years past, Feingold will try to amend one of the 13 appropriations bills, probably the Transportation-Treasury bill. But as in years past, there does not appear to be much support for Feingold’s effort at this time.

One Senate aide noted that when the Senate Appropriations Committee and the subcommittee on Transportation, Treasury and general government discussed the bill, no Senator brought up the COLA issue. (The pay hike goes into effect automatically when the Transportation-Treasury bill becomes law.)

“It wasn’t listed as a contentious issue,” the aide said.

Last year, during debate on the Homeland Security appropriations bill, Feingold’s motion to block the COLA was tabled by a vote of 58-36.

Despite the country’s poor fiscal health, a Senate leadership aide said he does not expect the debate to change much this year.

“The process will be allowed to go forward, but I don’t [anticipate] any changes in the process,” the aide said.

At the beginning of this year, Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) introduced a bill to block the COLA, but it has gone nowhere.

Traditionally, frugal Members try to use the Treasury-Transportation appropriations bill as their vehicle to try to block the otherwise automatic pay hike.

Matheson attempted to add an amendment that would have stopped the increase last week, but it failed.

“Mr. Speaker, let us send a signal to the American people that we recognize their struggle in today’s economy,” he said. “Vote … so we can have an opportunity to block the automatic cost-of-living adjustment to Members of Congress.”

The House leadership threw up a procedural hurdle to make it harder for Matheson — or anyone else — to succeed in keeping lawmakers’ pay static.

In the past the issue was politically volatile, often forcing incumbents to explain why they voted to give themselves a pay hike during campaigns. For more than a decade, House leaders have abided by an informal “non-aggression” pact on the issue, a tradition followed by House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and former Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).

When asked about the matter at a press conference last week, new House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said she and the Republican leadership have come to an understanding.

“I don’t think there were any large discussions on the subject, but it is something that I certainly agreed to, yes; probably a matter of months ago,” she explained last week. “I don’t remember any large discussion about it, but it is something that I did sign off on.”

When pressed on why she agreed to the raise, she cited precedent, noted that she only recently took over from Gephardt.

“This is my first year as leader, so I just follow the tradition that has been there,” she said.

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