Senators not in ‘millionaires' club’ would be hurt by lost paychecks

The Senate is often called the “millionaires' club,” but some of its members would feel the pain if a blown budget deadline costs them their paychecks.

Provisions in the “No Budget, No Pay” debt ceiling bill that is headed to the Senate floor would impound senators' salaries if the upper chamber doesn’t approve a budget by April 15.

For most of the upper chamber, the loss of the $174,000 annual salary would be no hardship. Many senators are millionaires many times over, having earned substantial fortunes outside of politics.

But for a small group of senators whose net worth is measured in thousands instead of millions, the passage of “No Budget, No Pay” would put their very livelihoods at risk.

“We’re not all millionaires,” Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) told The Hill. “When I splurge, it’s on a Ravens t-shirt.”

“As much as I love my job and my constituents, I have bills to pay,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska).

“As a non-millionaire senator, I am certainly in a different spot that someone who is independently wealthy,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said.

The provisions in the bill specify that if the Senate does not pass a budget resolution, pay will be withheld until Jan. 3, 2015, when the 113th Congress ends.

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The trigger is attached to a House-passed bill that would suspend the debt ceiling until May 19. Senate leaders support its swift passage to avoid a default on U.S. payment obligations now that the $16.4 trillion debt ceiling has been reached.

House Republicans devised the plan to force Senate Democrats to pass a budget, which they have failed to do for the past four years. But the threat of lost pay might be easy for some lawmakers to shrug off.

The Senate is home to Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who is worth at least $85.9 million; Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), whose fortune is at least $56.9 million; and Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) who is worth at least $19.6 million, according to financial disclosure reports from 2011.

But not every member of the Senate has an investment portfolio worthy of Wall Street.

“It will affect me but not as much as some members, such as those with small children,” Mikulski said.

For 2011, Mikulski had a minimum net worth of $191,000 due to assets like IRAs as well as money market and savings accounts.

Middle-class senators in the Republican Party are in an especially tough spot. If Senate Democrats come up short on a budget, they’ll suffer the consequences.

Murkowski would not say whether she backed the concept of withholding lawmaker pay.

“What I do support is some mechanism to make sure we do the most important job we have, which is to pass a budget,” she said.

Murkowski’s minimum net worth was at least $164,000 in 2011, according to her financial disclosure report.

Murkowski’s view contrasts with the strong support for the bill from newly appointed Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.). He said the country’s fiscal priorities should come first.

“We’ll all be affected … but what is more important is that it’s bad for the country not to pass a budget,” he said.

Scott’s minimum net worth is more than $1.2 million, thanks largely to real estate holdings in South Carolina.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who has sponsored a more stringent version of No Budget, No Pay, acknowledged this week that the concept depends on the less wealthy senators pressuring the Budget Committee to act.

“I think there would be a lot of people that would be affected of the 535 people that serve here in Washington, D.C., including myself,” he said.

The dynamic could open a class divide in the Senate, with lawmakers of less independent means facing pressure from their colleagues to bend on issues like taxes and entitlements in order to get a budget through.

Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) noted that possibility when the House bill came to a vote this week.

“The last thing we want to do is say to people thinking of running for the Congress, ‘If you’re not a millionaire, don’t run because we can’t guarantee you’ll be paid your salary,” Nadler said in a statement.

One of the key figures in the budget maneuvering is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a staunch advocate for antipoverty programs and entitlement benefits. He sits on the Budget Committee, and a 'no' vote by him in committee would be enough to stop a budget from moving forward.

The Vermont independent had a minimum net worth of $141,000 in 2011. He declined to discuss “No Budget, No Pay” this week.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), whose net worth is at least $10 million, said the paychecks issue is moot because a budget will be approved.

“It’s ridiculous and sophomoric,” he said of the House legislation.

Stabenow said Senate Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray (D-Wash.) could be trusted to produce a progressive Democratic budget resolution before the April 15 deadline.

Those assurances could be welcome news for senators like Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), a liberal member of the Budget Committee who responded with an emphatic “yes” when asked if she would be affected by losing pay.

In 2011, Baldwin had a minimum net worth of $301,000, according to her financial disclosure report as a House member.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) — who had a negative net worth in 2011 due to a pair of residential mortgages — told the Hill he strongly supports doing a budget on time, but did not think it should be tied to anything like pay.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said losing his salary would present him with a financial crisis of sorts.

“Definitely could not take that hit. It would present a real problem,” Casey said.

Casey had a minimum net worth of $127,000 in 2011. The Pennsylvania senator said lawmakers have little grounds to complain, given the widespread unemployment that still pervades the country.

“If we’re doing our work and we’re doing what they expect us to do, to work together and to get things done, we won’t have to worry about the consequences of pay loss or pay delay. Most people out there have it much tougher than anybody here,” Casey said.

NOTE: Lawmakers report their assets and liabilities on annual financial disclosure reports but don’t have to use exact figures, instead providing those values in ranges. The Hill uses the low end in the value range for each asset and liability in calculating a lawmaker’s worth, and then subtracts the sum of his or her liabilities from the sum of his or her assets to arrive at a minimum net worth for the lawmaker.

— Peter Schroeder contributed to this report.

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