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Leaders want 3% raise for U.S. lawmakers

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WASHINGTON — House leaders of both parties have agreed to push for a 3 percent cost-of-living pay raise for members of Congress, participants said last week, an increase that would be legislators' third in four years.

Should it take effect, lawmakers' salaries would rise in January by $4,200 to $145,500. Congress is likely to address the issue after is July Fourth recess.

The decision was made at a meeting of top House Republicans and Democrats at which the leaders also agreed not to use the boost as an issue in this fall's elections. Polls usually show that most members of the public oppose raising lawmakers' salaries.

"If you don't make it partisan, members can vote the way they want to" when they vote on it, said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House GOP's campaign committee.

"We all agreed we need good people to serve here, and they've got to be properly compensated," said Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., chairman of the House Democrats' campaign committee.

Hundreds of high-level executive branch officials would also receive the 3 percent increase, since their salaries are linked by law to members of Congress.

Kennedy and Davis attended last week's meeting, along with House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.; House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo.; and other leaders. Participants said the unusual gathering of political foes lasted 15 minutes.

Aides said Senate leaders were also checking on the prospects for moving the raise through that chamber. In recent years, opposition to increasing lawmakers' salaries has been stronger in the House.

A 1989 law allows automatic pay raises for members of Congress unless they vote to block it. The process has avoided annual votes on what can be a politically touchy subject. The increase is based on a measurement of private industry pay raises, minus 0.5 percent.

House leaders have decided to allow opponents a vote aimed at stopping the raise when the chamber debates a fiscal 2001 spending bill for the Treasury Department, probably next month. That bill is the traditional vehicle for the pay raise fight.

Last year, pay raise opponents forced a House vote. But underlining the low political risk most lawmakers saw, the House supported the increase by 276-147.

Lawmakers last got increases that took effect this year and in 1998, but prior to that had blocked them for four consecutive years.

The recent run of pay raises has paralleled the federal budget's transition from annual deficits to surpluses, which some lawmakers have used to help justify their higher salaries. Members also argue that the increase would only keep them even with inflation.

But critics on the left and right say higher pay is not deserved.

"Members of Congress already receive overly generous salaries, and a list of perks a train-length long," said Gary Ruskin, director of the liberal Congressional Accountability Project.

Pete Sepp, spokesman for the conservative National Taxpayers' Union, said lawmakers should not get raises because they have failed to enact dramatic tax increases or spending cuts and "have had nothing to do with this prosperity" the country is enjoying.