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With lawmakers seeking to balance mounting deficits with funding relief needs for Hurricane Katrina victims, opponents of Congress’ annual pay increases believe they may have their best opportunity in years to abolish the measure guaranteeing the yearly salary hike.

When Republicans in the House and Senate unveiled wide-ranging plans last week to cut federal spending, each included proposals that would scrap the annual cost-of-living adjustment provided to Members.

Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), who often finds himself a lonely voice of opposition to the automatic increase, praised his Republican colleagues for reviving the proposal.

“It will give more Members the pause to think,” said Matheson, who has argued that Congress should not give itself a pay raise when faced with other issues, including the ongoing war against terror, as well as education and health care programs that he believes are more deserving of federal funds.

“I know this won’t pay for everything, but it’s the right thing to do,” Matheson said.

According to estimates provided by the Republican Study Committee, suspending the pay raise for House Members — which they automatically receive under federal law unless legislation is passed to block the COLA from being implemented — would amount to $5 million over a five-year period, or up to $14 million over the next decade.

Across the Capitol, a similar proposal put forth by Republicans including Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), Jim DeMint (S.C.), John Ensign (Nev.), John McCain (Ariz.) and John Sununu (N.H.), called on Senators to “set a good example of charity by giving up their pay increase in order to help those affected by Hurricane Katrina.”

That version, which calls for eliminating the automatic pay raise, is estimated to provide $2 million over a one-year period, or $10 million over five years.

“Members should not be voting themselves a pay raise while we’re not able to adequately fund an effort to rebuild peoples’ homes and running [up] budget deficits,” said Coburn spokesman John Hart, who added the proposal “signifies Congress’ determination to lead by example.”

Unless Congress adopts legislation overturning its annual pay raise, Members are expected to receive an additional $3,100 in the new fiscal year, bringing pay for rank-and-file lawmakers to $165,200 from the current $162,100. Members of the elected leadership are paid slightly more.

Although Matheson sought to block the pay raise during debate of the fiscal 2006 Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development, the Judiciary, District of Columbia and independent agencies spending bill, he was blocked on a procedural motion, and House Members were not required to make an up-or-down vote on the COLA.

“Now more than ever this is not the time for Congress to give itself a raise,” he added.

Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.), another longtime proponent of eradicating the automatic pay raise, said Friday he remains optimistic that the measure could gain momentum.

“Given the financial situation that we are in right now, I think it has a better chance,” said Goode, who has previously supported similar legislation.

“It’s better than in the past,” he added. “But it’s certainly no guarantee.”

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), an equally staunch opponent of what he calls the “back-door pay raise system,” also praised his colleagues for bringing new attention to the subject.

“Most Americans cannot simply raise their own pay, so if we are to use that unusual power, the least we can do is vote on it out in the open,” Feingold said in a statement.

The Wisconsin lawmaker is a perpetual sponsor of legislation that would end the automatic cost-of-living adjustment.

“We have troops committed across the globe, our nation is facing a mounting deficit, and the monumental rebuilding effort ahead of us in the Gulf region is all the more reason why we should be tightening our belts,” Feingold added. “I am pleased that Members from both sides of the aisle understand that getting our fiscal house in order should be a top priority.”

Although similar legislation in the House has gained support in recent years, the number of co-sponsors is typically few.

But new legislation could gain needed strength from bipartisan support, said National Taxpayers Union spokesman Pete Sepp.

“One of the hurdles to passage of this proposal has been the pact of silence among Democratic and Republican leadership,” Sepp said. “The fact that a large group of Republicans is now willing to break the silence and join with populist Democrats might just put this proposal over the top.”

While the funds reserved from abolishing the pay raise would be small in comparison to other potential budget cuts, Sepp asserted that the action could still be significant.

“It’s a small fiscal gesture with gigantic symbolic proportions,” Sepp said. Should lawmakers elect to suspend their own pay raises, Sepp added, it could demonstrate that they are “directly and personally serious about maintaining fiscal discipline while providing relief funds.”

Still, even among those lawmakers who acknowledged that spending cuts will likely need to be made in coming months, many declined to address whether their own paychecks should be slashed as part of the effort.

“There needs to be a lot of shared sacrifice,” said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) “Everything ought to be on the table.”

But LaHood added that the decision on whether that includes Member pay should be left to House leaders.

Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.) noted: “Whatever they put up, I’ll vote for it.”

But other lawmakers, including Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), criticized the inclusion of the proposal.

“I just don’t think it’s helping anyone to take your pet issue and say, ‘cut it,’” said Ney, who also suggested that costs for relief efforts could increase in the wake of Hurricane Rita, which was expected to make landfall over the weekend. “It’s not the proper way to do it.”

But at least one House lawmaker, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), openly opposed the proposal.

“It’s purely symbolic,” Frank said. “If you look at the responsibilities of the Members of Congress, it clearly calls for a salary higher than this.”

Asserting that many of his colleagues have made personal donations to the relief efforts, Frank added: “If people don’t think the Member is up to it, they should fire the Member. But I don’t think denigrating the job is a good idea.”

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