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House Quietly Passes $3,000 Pay Raise

Politics: Vote, taken without mention of increase, would boost lawmakers' salary for first time since 1992. Some vow attempt to block it.

September 18, 1997| From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — With remarkable swiftness, the House of Representatives reached out Wednesday for a $3,000 increase in the congressional salary of $133,600.

On a vote of 231-192, and after a desultory debate in which the subject of a pay raise was never mentioned, lawmakers approved a routine Treasury Department spending bill shorn of a provision used routinely in recent years to block cost-of-living increases for lawmakers.

"They're pushing it through so they don't have to talk about" the 2.3% raise, Rep. Linda Smith (R-Wash.) said of the GOP leadership as the multibillion-dollar spending bill was whisking through the House in scarcely an hour. She and others later vowed to use other legislation as a means for blocking the pay increase.

"No one was trying to pull a fast one on anybody," countered Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), who steered the bill to passage. Even so, the tension on the House floor was evident, as GOP Whip Tom DeLay of Texas, a behind-the-scenes supporter of a pay raise, patrolled the floor continuously while the measure was pending.

While the legislation moved through the House quickly--and with little advance notice to lawmakers--final passage capped weeks of quiet discussions among senior lawmakers. Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.), the Democratic leader, were involved in conversations over whether and how to proceed in securing the first cost-of-living increase in congressional pay since 1992.

In separate closed-door caucuses earlier in the day, according to congressional officials, rank-and-file members of both parties discussed the issue. These officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said lawmakers were cautioned by their leaders that they would be subject to attack by their rivals in the next campaign if the pay raise takes effect.

Ultimately, it was decided to bring the legislation to the floor under a procedure designed to bar a direct vote on the pay raise itself. No one even sought recognition to try to amend the measure.

Even so, some Republicans worried aloud about the potential for political fallout on an issue that has proved volatile in the past.

Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.), chairman of the House Republican campaign apparatus, said: "It's one more issue we don't need to have." He said incumbents in "politically vulnerable districts" will be attacked by their campaign opponents over the pay raise. Republicans hold a slender 227-206 majority in the House.

In fact, the legislation contains no mention of an increase in pay for members of Congress. But it has been used in recent years to block such increases.

Under a law passed in 1989, lawmakers are entitled to an annual cost-of-living salary increase linked to what the president recommends for federal workers. Officials said that for the year beginning Jan. 1, 1998, that would amount to a raise of 2.3% for lawmakers, or $3,072 annually.

The last cost-of-living increase for Congress was in 1992. Each year since, lawmakers have blocked their own increases by tacking an amendment onto the spending bill for the Treasury Department. The Senate version of the Treasury spending bill includes a provision that explicitly denies a pay raise for members of the House and Senate. Negotiators for the two houses will be charged with reaching a compromise on the issue.

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