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Reid Faults Vitter, Presses for Raise for Salazar

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will continue a push to close the salary gap between Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and other Cabinet officials, despite Salazar’s request to drop the matter after Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) threatened to block the raise.

Salazar asked Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday to “set aside any effort” to bring his salary into parity after he received a letter from Vitter. The Louisiana Republican promised to block the effort unless the Interior Department issued more deep-water drilling permits for the Gulf of Mexico.

Salazar characterized the letter as coercive. “It must be made perfectly clear that his attempt cannot and will not affect” the actions of the department, Salazar told Reid and McConnell.

But a Reid spokesman said Wednesday that the Nevada Democrat had no plans to abandon the plan. “It sets a bad precedent to give in to someone who attempts to coerce a Cabinet secretary,” Jon Summers said.

The scuffle began last week when Reid introduced legislation that would increase the Interior secretary’s $180,000 annual salary by about $20,000. Salazar, who resigned from the Senate to take the post, makes less than the $199,700 paid to other Cabinet secretaries because of the Constitution’s Ineligibility Clause, which seeks to prevent lawmakers from voting to raise the salary for a federal job and then move into that job at the higher pay rate.

For decades, the White House has relied on a procedural tactic to appoint current Members of Congress to Cabinet-level positions by rolling back the salary to the amount that was set at the start of the lawmaker’s term. The Senate can later address the disparity in a vote when the former lawmaker’s term would have expired. Salazar’s Senate term would have been up in January had he remained in Congress.

Vitter’s maneuver was his latest attempt to step up oil production in the Gulf since the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in April 2010 sent nearly 5 million barrels of crude oil into the water. He has made no secret about his dissatisfaction with the Interior Department’s pace of approving drilling permits.

In his letter to Salazar, Vitter called the department’s pace “abysmal” and said he would end his efforts to block the salary increase once Interior returns to the pre-moratorium level of approximately six permits per month.

A spokesman for Vitter said any attempt to characterize the Senator’s letter as coercion or bribery would only “make my boss a Louisiana folk hero.”

Vitter praised Salazar’s request Wednesday. “I’m glad the secretary has dropped his push for a pay raise. … Now I hope he starts earning what he already makes and properly issues new permits for much-needed drilling in the Gulf,” Vitter said.

Reid criticized Vitter for placing inappropriate pressure on the Interior secretary. “I have worked with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on this issue for weeks, and it is wrong for Sen. Vitter to try to get something in return for moving forward on a matter that the Senate has considered routine for more than a century,” Reid said.