Senate pay raise vote a political risk

Some potentially vulnerable Democrats cast a procedural vote late Friday night that allowed lawmakers to receive a cost of living increase--and provide their opponents with a possible campaign issue.

A total of 18 senators who are up for re-election next year voted to block an amendment that would have eliminated the pay raise. Among them were Sens. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., Mary Landrieu, D-La., and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa--all of whom are expected to face tough challenges from Republicans next year.

"It's an issue that'll be explored in some of those close contests," said one Senate GOP aide.

Also voting to allow the increase were Sens. Joseph Biden, D- Del., and John Kerry, D-Mass., who are both up in 2002 and have been mentioned as possible presidential candidates. Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., along with most other party leaders, voted to allow the increase.

Republicans who are likely to draw stiff challenges appear to have insulated themselves by voting with Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., to try to block the automatic $4,900 increase. The attempt failed, 65-33.

Republicans who voted for the increase are generally senior legislators who hold safe seats, like Sens. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, Pete Domenici, R-N.M, and Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. Others, like Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, are retiring.

But in his brief remarks during a short, late-night floor debate, Feingold offered some of the rhetoric that could be employed by challengers to those who backed the increase.

"Right this minute, our nation is sending the men and women of our armed services into harm's way," Feingold said. "I do not think it is the time for Congress to accept a pay raise. Let's stop this backdoor pay raise."

Feingold also noted that the nation has returned to deficit spending during an economic slowdown--conditions that could make a vote for a pay increase more perilous.

But Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., the only other senator to speak on the topic during floor debate, criticized those lawmakers who would vote against the increase, but then accept it anyway, a position he characterized as, "Vote no, but take the dough." Campbell, who voted not to block the increase, urged anyone with moral qualms about it to donate the money to charity.

"If they are that guilt ridden, they can, in fact, return it back to the federal treasury," he said. "In the past, in fact, some have come to the floor to emphatically denounce the increase while letting other legislators shoulder the burden to pass the bill and they quietly pocket the money and sneak off in the night hoping nobody will notice that their outrage does not jibe with their actions."

Campbell concluded: "This amendment may be great theater, but one thing is clear. It is not an automatic ticket to re-election. Self-flagellation never is."