Awkward choice at Capitol: Vote your conscience or for your paycheck

Senate Republicans and House Democrats will face an awkward choice as they consider budget votes next week: They can either vote for a set of policies they abhor, or they can cast a vote that could result in them missing their paychecks.

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Such is the conundrum created by the so-called “No Budget, No Pay” law that Congress enacted last month, which stipulates that if the House and Senate do not pass budget resolutions by April 15, members in the chamber that fails will have their pay suspended.

House Republican leaders came up with the idea as a way to win conservative support for a debt-ceiling extension while forcing Senate Democrats to vote on a budget for the first time in four years. But it is their GOP colleagues in the Senate who could find themselves in an unintended financial bind if Democrats fail to win 50 votes for the budget that Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) unveiled this week.

“It’s not without its irony,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) said, “since it is Republicans who have been actually introducing, supporting, voting for budgets in a responsible way while the Democrats have refused.

“But it’s the law and we’ll deal with it,” he added.

Budget resolutions are almost always party-line votes, meaning it is up to the majority party to cobble together the support needed to get their budget passed. Senate Republicans have lambasted the Democratic proposal for raising $1 trillion in new taxes, while House Democrats argue the Republican budget wipes out the social safety net with its overhaul of Medicare and Medicaid.

None of the lawmakers interviewed for this story said the fact that their salary was at stake would factor into their decision.

“You’re saying I would condition my vote on the budget on whether it affects my pay? That’s absurd,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) said.

But the move to tie a budget vote to member pay has irked some lawmakers in both parties. Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said at the time of “No Budget, No Pay” vote that he opposed the measure on the grounds that it was “basically using federal pay to influence a vote.”

The risk of losing a paycheck or two might not be swaying votes, but might lawmakers in the minority parties secretly want to see the majority budgets pass anyway, to keep their own salaries flowing?

"No part of me! No part of me. Period," said Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), who blasted the policy as “immoral” and “un-American" and said it was part of a pattern of Republicans targeting both congressional member salaries and federal employees.

“We have humbled ourselves for what reason? We’re not slouches,” he said. “Everybody here was elected, duly elected. So why do we have to cower behind the fact that we get paid?”

“Not one part of me, not one iota, will support that just to get my pay,” Pascrell said. “They could go to hell.”

“I think they’re immoral,” he continued. “It’s un-American, and as far as I’m concerned they can do whatever the hell they want. I’m not going to change my mind.”

The base salary for members of Congress is $174,000, and many lawmakers in both chambers are millionaires and would suffer little financial hardship from missing a few paychecks. Because the Constitution forbids changes to member pay in the middle of a term, lawmakers’ paychecks would simply be held in escrow if the budget deadline were missed, not permanently reduced.

“It would be fine with me. I can afford it,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who famously forgot how many homes he owned during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said having “some personal skin in the game is a good concept.”

“I’m not worried about me losing my paycheck,” he said. “I’m worried about the body being so dysfunctional that we can’t pass a budget. And if we can’t pass a budget, then we don’t deserve to get paid.”

Other members said giving up their pay for a few weeks by successfully torpedoing a budget proposal they oppose would be a worthy sacrifice.

“That’s my only income, and we have families and all that stuff, but there’s a lot of American people facing a paycheck-to-paycheck situation,” Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said. “It’s a threat, but if we were to stop it and force something better, it’d probably be worth the sacrifice.”