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Vitter Forces Vote on Pay Raise

Congress’ fight over the $410 billion omnibus package includes an issue that re-emerges almost every year: the annual cost-of-living increase to Members’ salaries.

Already, Members in both the House and Senate have agreed to forgo their raises in 2010, sticking to a salary of $174,000.

But Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) wants Congress to add another provision to the omnibus bill that would require Members to vote every year on whether to get a raise.

Right now, the pay increase is automatic, sparing lawmakers from a politically charged vote.

By offering an amendment, Vitter said he was forcing Senators to cast a difficult vote on a system he is “fundamentally— against.

“I think it’s wrong. I think it’s tripley offensive at a point like now when we’re in the midst of a horrible recession,— he said Monday. “The way to pass it is to bring it up now and put some focus on it.—

But Vitter’s amendment faces several obstacles.

Not only do many lawmakers oppose the idea of voting up-or-down on their raises, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has threatened to give up on an omnibus — and instead pass a continuing resolution — if the Senate fails to approve the House-passed version.

But Vitter has succeeded in putting the issue front and center.

While Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) tried to end debate on the omnibus last week, Vitter was one of several Republicans to refuse to vote for it without consideration of a handful of amendments.

The Senate is expected to take up Vitter’s amendment on Tuesday, putting Democrats in the uncomfortable position of casting a vote that could be used against them in their re-election campaigns.

It wouldn’t be the first time. In 2006, several challengers used the COLA issue against incumbents, a tactic that seemed to cross party lines.

Ohio Rep. Zack Space (D) called then-Rep. Bob Ney (R) “out of touch,— while West Virginia Del. Chris Wakim (R) accused Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) of being “just plain wrong.—

At that point, the pay raise was automatic, and and no Member could stop it short of introducing a bill to do so.

The vote on Vitter’s amendment will be far more clear-cut: If Members vote against it, it’s easy to accuse them of supporting automatic pay increases.

It also could be a valuable talking point for Vitter, who faces a tough re-election in 2010 after admitting in 2007 to “very serious sins— in connection with the “D.C. Madam— prostitution ring.

The issue of Members’ pay raises is ripe for the campaign trail, said one senior Senate GOP aide.

“Any Member that votes for a pay raise at a time when there’s an economic crisis and their state is shedding jobs — it exposes them,— the aide said.

But Reid seems to have already taken steps to preserve Democrats’ record on the COLA, introducing a separate piece of legislation Monday that is identical to Vitter’s amendment.

If Reid schedules a vote on his bill, it would allow Senators a second chance to vote to eliminate the automatic pay raise and yet still vote against Vitter’s amendment so the omnibus passes quickly.

The bill, said Reid spokesman Jim Manley, helps the Majority Leader “preserve his options.—

“Both Reid and Pelosi have made it very clear that the omnibus needs to pass without changes,— he said.

Vitter called Reid’s bill an “attempt at giving folks cover for voting against my amendment. Anybody paying the least bit attention can see that,— he said.

Many lawmakers, however, are against cutting the pay raise, though few will admit it so publicly. The last time the issue came up — in April 2008 — Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) argued that the raise is needed to attract better lawmakers.

Some lawmakers also claim the issue is used to score political points. On the Senate floor Monday, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) called Vitter’s amendment “political bait.—

“This amendment is about trying to change the underlying bill, knowing that the House has indicated they will not take this bill back up, in an effort to force the government to operate under a continuing resolution for the remainder of the fiscal year,— Inouye said in his prepared remarks.

It’s nothing new. Members’ pay raises have been a hot-button issue since “the beginning of the republic,— said Norman Ornstein, an American Enterprise Institute resident scholar and Roll Call contributing writer.

If Vitter’s amendment were to pass and Members had to vote every year for a pay raise, they would probably go years without one, he said. Then one day, Members would have to give themselves a significant raise to keep them in line with their living costs.

That’s why Congress made its annual raises automatic in 1989. Ever since, they’ve alternated between freezing their own salaries and quietly pushing them back up. And several Members have tried to get rid of the automatic increase altogether.

“You’re always going to get people trying to blow that up, and sometimes when times are tough … it becomes hard to resist,— Ornstein said.

Members have frozen their pay in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996, only letting it increase for one year before they froze it again in 1998.

The most recent stab of pay guilt came in 2007, when the House and Senate blocked their COLA to highlight a stagnant minimum wage. But when legislation passed to increase the federal minimum wage, they gave a pay raise back to themselves.

The raise itself is minimal, averaging from 2 percent to 3 percent a year. Still, it’s a powerful symbol, reminding constituents that Members have a healthy salary even during a recession when unemployment has skyrocketed.

Vitter’s amendment is more long-lasting than a bill to freeze Members’ pay. It would mean a difficult vote every Congress, where Members would be hard-pressed to justify voting for their own raises.

And that’s the idea, Vitter said. If it doesn’t pass this time, he said he will look for other bills to add it to.

“Clearly it’s a more difficult process. That’s the whole point of my amendment,— he said. “I do think we would have to have an open and public debate.—

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