By Andrew Restuccia - 05/26/11 01:00 AM EDT
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) blasted Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) on Wednesday as Democrats ramped up their criticism of Vitter’s pledge to block Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s pay increase.
Democrats argue Vitter’s vow to block legislation raising Salazar’s salary until the Interior Department issues more offshore drilling permits amounts to “coercion” and might even border on bribery. But it’s unclear whether the criticism will exist as a political talking point or develop into more serious allegations.
“[I]t 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 in a statement Wednesday.
Reid’s office called Vitter’s effort to block the bill, which would raise Salazar’s salary to a level comparable with other Cabinet officials’, “inappropriate coercion.”
The statement echoes language used by Salazar in a letter to Senate leadership obtained Tuesday by The Hill.
“[A] member of the Senate has taken the position, in writing, that his vote on the issue is dependent upon the outcome of his attempted coercion of public acts here at the department,” Salazar said in the letter, in which he asked Senate leaders to set the bill aside.
“That position is wrong, and it must be made perfectly clear that his attempt cannot and will not affect the execution of the solemn legal responsibilities that the department undertakes on behalf of the American people,” Salazar continued.
Senate Democratic leadership has even raised the possibility that Vitter’s effort to block Salazar’s pay increase could violate the federal bribery statute.
“This crosses the line. The bribery statute makes it a crime to offer anything of value to a public official to influence an official act,” a Democratic leadership aide told The Hill on Tuesday night. “Vitter is basically saying, ‘Do what I say and I’ll stop blocking this routine pay equalization measure for you.’ That sure sounds like bribery to me. It’s wrong; it’s unethical; it’s probably illegal.”
Vitter stood by his plan to block the bill.
Reid offered legislation last week that would raise Salazar’s salary by $19,600 so that it is comparable with other Cabinet officials’.
Since Salazar voted to raise the Interior secretary’s salary during his time as a senator, he was obligated under a clause in the Constitution to accept the pre-raise pay level when he left the Senate to take over as head of the department.
He became eligible for the higher pay level in January, when his Senate term would have come to an end. Salazar currently makes $180,100 a year. Vitter, in a letter to Salazar on Monday, said he would block a unanimous-consent agreement on the bill until the Interior Department issues six permits for new deepwater exploratory wells in the Gulf of Mexico every month.
“Given the completely unsatisfactory pace of your department’s issuance of new deepwater exploratory permits in the Gulf, I cannot possibly give my assent,” Vitter said in the letter to Salazar on Monday.
This story was originally posted at 10:00 a.m. and has been updated.