Democrats renew efforts to block lawmakers' pay raise

Democrats are renewing their vow to impede the annual congressional pay raise until the minimum wage is increased, but their options for a successful block during the lame-duck session likely depend on the outcome of the Nov. 7 midterm election.

Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was the latest senior Democrat to reiterate his party’s intention to oppose the cost-of-living increase lawmakers have received automatically for more than a decade until the minimum wage is raised for the first time since 1997.

“It’s not a threat, it’s a promise. Until minimum-wage workers get an increase in pay, Congress is not going to get an increase in pay,” Durbin said at a press conference last Thursday sponsored by the AFL-CIO and ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now).

Durbin was joined by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose bill to tie future minimum-wage increases to congressional pay raises has attracted increasing Democratic focus since its spring introduction. Durbin declined to offer details of how Democrats plan to stave off members’ 2 percent hike. Traditionally, it is thwarted only with an amendment to an appropriations bill.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said in an e-mail that Democrats have not abandoned their pledge to fight members’ raises despite the lack of progress on a minimum-wage vote before the election.

“Hard work still deserves fair pay, and Democrats still think Congress shouldn’t get a raise unless the American people get one first,” Manley said. “We will continue to pursue all our options in the lame duck.”

The Democratic effort to tie member pay to the minimum wage even after the election signals to core allies in labor and community groups that Democratic leaders believe the issue transcends politics — that “it is in concrete how important this is to” them, in the words of Chuck Loveless, legislative director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Yet political considerations are likely to determine how far Democrats can take their quest to impede the pay raise, or if the issue gets addressed at all, appropriations experts and supporters of the effort said.

“If you know you’re in the minority and you’re going to remain in the minority, you’ve got few options for winning on the minimum wage,” said Scott Lilly, a longtime Democratic staff director on the House Appropriations Committee and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “Tying this pay increase to it is more of a strategy you would be focused on if you thought you couldn’t proceed for a straight increase in the minimum wage.”

Conversely, Lilly added, a Democratic takeover of one or both houses likely would curtail the lame-duck session as Republicans turn their attention to new leadership elections. “If Republicans lose the House, they will probably be here in November for about a half-hour,” he said.

James Dyer, a former GOP House Appropriations staff director turned Clark & Weinstock lobbyist, concurred with that prediction.

“I think the bottom line is, they’re going to wait and see how the elections go,” Dyer said. “If Democrats took one or more houses, the process [of raising the minimum wage] could be booted to January.”

Dyer recalled that senior Democrats and Republicans hailed the 1989 passage of the Ethics in Government Act that made lawmakers’ cost-of-living increases automatic. Members gave up their limited ability to earn outside income as part of that agreement, he said, making any permanent changes to the pay raise process – such as the Clinton-Kennedy bill — a potentially dicey proposition on both sides of the aisle.

“This is a painful issue. It’s not as black-and-white as whether you’re going to provide folks with an increase in the minimum wage,” Dyer said.

The House has considered an amendment from Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) to block the annual member raise, though a vote on Matheson’s actual language was procedurally prevented. More Republicans sided with Matheson than did members of his own party, with 92 GOP members and 74 Democrats voting no in June.

The Senate has yet to address any challenges to the members’ raise, historically done in the Treasury Department appropriations bill. One Senate Democratic aide said leaders are reluctant to tip their hand because they want to preserve their parliamentary options, not because they want to unleash a surprise strategy.

The aide mentioned the Senate’s rarely invoked Rule 14, which allows any member to bring a bill straight onto the Senate’s legislative calendar. The Clinton-Kennedy minimum wage bill remains under committee jurisdiction, but another bill calling for a straight minimum-wage increase has been on the Senate calendar since last year.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who only agrees to accept pay raises after he is newly reelected, is proceeding with his plans to force a vote on the issue. “As I have done in the past, I will look for every opportunity to make senators vote on raising their own pay, and I will support any other efforts that will accomplish the same thing,” Feingold said through a spokesman.

Feingold’s bid to hold down member salaries saw surprising success last year, when senators agreed to forfeit their raises as a symbolic gesture after Hurricane Katrina, but the pay-raise block was stripped during conference talks.

House Democrats, meanwhile, continue to call on the 48 Republicans who pushed their leadership earlier this year for a vote on the minimum-wage increase to sign a discharge petition to force a vote on Rep. George Miller’s (D-Calif.) wage hike bill. The only two GOP members on the petition, Reps. Christopher Shays (Conn.) and Jim Leach (Iowa), attached their names in July.

House GOP leaders still must address the minimum-wage increase attached to its Labor, Health and Human Services appropriations bill. Dyer offered a solution to that roadblock: “What Republicans could do, if they wanted to play hardball, is ask the Appropriations Committee to produce an omnibus that didn’t have [the minimum wage] on it.”

That move, in turn, could force Senate Democrats to filibuster an omnibus appropriations bill as part of any drive to block this year’s member pay raise. AFL-CIO legislative director Bill Samuel recalled the narrow defeat of an early 2004 omnibus filibuster over new rules for overtime pay, another key labor concern.

“The question is if [the minimum wage and pay raise debate] comes down to filibustering an omnibus appropriations bill. It’s difficult; we tried it,” Samuel said. “But I think there will be a lot of energy behind [this year’s fight].”