Congress refused to give itself a $45,000 pay raise under threat of voter retaliation, but members held out hope President Bush would suggest a less generous but more politically acceptable salary increase.
Late Tuesday, Bush signed legislation overwhelmingly passed by the House and Senate that killed a proposed 51 percent pay raise for Congress, as well as salary increases for top executive branch officials and federal judges. Bush said he would try to get some increase in pay for the lawmakers and other officials."I believe that some level of pay increase is in order, and I will be working with the House and Senate leadership to develop proposals to achieve that end. I would also like to express my special concern about the level of compensation for members of our federal judiciary," Bush said in a prepared statement.
After Congress rejected the pay raise Tuesday, Senate Republican leader Robert Dole of Kansas said, "The issue is clear. We've received a lot of mail on this issue."
Calling on Bush to recommend a lower pay rate, Dole said, "A 51 percent increase is too much to swallow. There should not be a 51 percent, but a reasonable increase."
Bush endorsed the pay raise recommended by a special presidential commission and sent by President Reagan to Congress for a vote.
But Bush, saying a raise is overdue, said Congress should vote to accept or reject it.
Polls had shown a large majority of voters were against the pay increase. For weeks, the House was content to let their salary rise to $135,000 by inaction. Without a vote by both the House and Senate to reject the raise, it would have gone into effect at 12:01 a.m. EST Wednesday.
House Speaker Jim Wright's strategy to let the deadline lapse fell apart when the Senate voted 95-5 to reject the raise, increasing the political heat on the 435 House members to have a recorded tally.
With national surveys showing more than 80 percent of those polled opposing the raise as excessive, and bags of mail rolling up to Capitol Hill in protest of the increase, Wright and his colleagues bowed to the inevitable.
The 380-48 House vote reflected concern that accepting the 51 percent pay raise would mean political reprisals in the next election.
A few hours later, the Senate killed the proposal 94-6.
There appears to be no easy way to resolve the situation of having the congressional pay scale level locked onto that of most judges and senior members of the executive branch.
Without an increase, the special commission said, judges will leave lifetime appointments to earn better salaries, and the government will not have the financial clout to recruit talented scientists to work in medical research programs on such health problems as AIDS.
"We are voting to continue the exodus of judges, top-level managers, and, yes, creative members of Congress from government service to the private sector," Rep. Tony Coelho, D-Calif., told the House.
Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., chairman of the powerful tax-writing Ways and Means Committee and a 30-year Capitol Hill veteran, said the raise is deserved and the Congress should have the courage to defend it in an election.
"The quality of all three branches will suffer because we do not have the guts to say what we are worth," Rostenkowski said.
"Let's stop breast beating and finger pointing. My colleagues, you deserve a pay raise," he said.
But critics in Congress, as well as consumer rights activist Ralph Nader, said the 51 percent increase was grossly excessive at a time of budget deficits, the savings and loan industry crisis, and expected cutbacks in social programs.
"By staying away from the public trough ourselves at the start of this session, I think we have enhanced substantially our ability to deal with the deficit," Rep. Thomas Tauke, R-Iowa, said.
The commission's proposal of a base $135,000 pay level for members of Congress and most judges and senior members of the executive branch was said to have merit. Many critics say some increase is justified.> But public criticism evolved into outrage over the way the House tried to maneuver to avoid even voting on the proposal so it could slip into effect automatically.
Nader said the furor left the House leadership "damaged because they behaved in a secretive, juvenile and dictatorial manner.> "They tried to sneak it (the pay raise) through without a vote and were caught in the act by millions of voters," Nader said.> Rep. Vic Fazio, D-Calif., said by killing the pay raise, the government was losing talent in the judiciary.> "How do we hold on to federal judges who are dealing daily across the bench with lawyers who are making five times more" than they are, Fazio said.