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Democrats Face Political Risk on Pay Freeze Proposal

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Gerry Connolly, whose Northern Virginia district is home to many federal employees, signed on to a letter last week asking payroll tax conferees not to freeze federal employees' salaries for a third year.

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Democrats might have the votes to block a measure on the House floor today that would freeze the pay of federal workers for a third year in a row, but opposing the bill could involve political risk for some Members.

Many say they back a provision in the legislation that would freeze lawmakers’ salaries.

But several senior Democrats expressed discomfort with the notion of tacking a third year onto an already existing two-year freeze on the pay of civilian federal employees, whose unions are key supporters of the Democratic Party.

The bill should easily garner a majority in the Republican-led House, but GOP leaders have opted to consider the measure under suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds majority for passage, making approval more problematic.

“I would favor a stand-alone bill that would cut Congressional salaries as I have consistently done since I’ve been in Congress, but I’m not going to penalize federal employees,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Democrat who represents a district in Northern Virginia that is home to many federal employees.

Connolly signed on to a letter last week with 17 other Democrats — led by Oversight and Government Reform ranking member Elijah Cummings (Md.) — asking conferees working on a payroll tax extension bill to spare federal employees a third year of pay freezes. Cummings spokeswoman Ashley Etienne said her boss will vote against the bill on the House floor today.

At a weekly meeting with reporters Tuesday, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) accused Republicans of including the Congressional pay freeze extension in the legislation as an attempt to force Democrats’ hands.

“To include [in the bill] a freeze of our salary is very clever. ... It will be perceived as, if you’re voting against the bill, you’re voting to raise your own salary,” Hoyer said. “A very good 30-second ad.”

The bill, introduced last week by Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), would freeze paychecks for Members of Congress and government employees through 2013.

The current moratoriums on pay increases across the government are set to expire at the end of this year.

“While private sector workers face the squeeze and millions of families continue searching for work, the idea of asking for their hard-earned tax dollars go to fund a pay raise for government employees is just not right,” Duffy said in a statement. “As American families and businesses have been forced to tighten their belts, Washington has refused to do the same.”

To bolster their position, Republicans point to a recent Congressional Budget Office report showing that federal workers earn on average 16 percent more than their private-sector counterparts. A 2011 study by two conservative scholars found the disparity to be even greater.

Michael Steel, spokesman for Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), stresses that Duffy’s bill is simply extending pay freezes already endorsed by the Obama administration, although the president has not endorsed the extension.

Some Democrats are siding with Republicans.

“At a time when Utah families are struggling with tight budgets, now is not the time for Members of Congress or federal employees to receive a pay increase,” Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah) said. “Reducing the red ink back here and putting us on a path toward a balanced budget will take shared sacrifice and that starts with us, not just talking the talk, but walking the walk.”

Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), who appealed to the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction last year to cut Congressional salaries by 5 percent, also plans to vote for the bill, according to spokesman Willy Ritch.

Emily Holden of CQ contributed to this report.

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