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Posted at 03:14 PM ET, 04/01/2011

In surprise for Democrats, procedural move on no-pay bill backfires

House Democrats on Friday launched what appeared to be a clever procedural move against a Republican-sponsored bill on funding the federal government, presenting the GOP with a tough choice: vote for a Democratic measure that would withhold lawmakers’ pay in the case of a government shutdown, or risk going on record supporting members’ pay during a shutdown.

But Republicans countered with a surprise assault on the Democratic measure, arguing that the White House had told them it was unconstitutional.

The Democrats’ proposal was based on the same language as S. 388, which passed the Senate last month by unanimous consent. It states that neither members of Congress nor the president will receive their basic pay for any period in which there is a government shutdown of greater than 24 hours.

The House Democrats proposed their version on the House floor Friday afternoon as a means of countering a House Republican bill called the “Government Shutdown Prevention Act,” which Democrats have assailed as unconstitutional.

That bill, which is mostly a symbolic resolution re-stating that the House would cut $61 billion from this fiscal year’s budget, also includes a provision that would essentially do the same thing as the Democratic measure.

Democrats argued that by introducing the Senate-passed version of the no-pay-for-members bill, Republicans were faced with a tough vote: if Republicans really wanted to cut off members’ pay during a shutdown, Democrats argued, they’d vote for the Democratic bill.

Democrats added that in contrast to the Republican bill, their version of the legislation – which had already been passed by the Senate – would go immediately to the president if it passed on Friday.

Minnesota Democratic Rep. Tim Walz, who introduced the measure on the House floor Friday, relished the opportunity to put Republicans on the spot.

“Here’s your rare opportunity,” said Walz, standing next to a large blue posterboard reading, “No Work = No Pay.” If Republicans didn’t vote for the measure, he argued, they’d have to go back to their districts and explain to their constituents why they should keep their own pay during a shutdown.

But then Republicans took the floor with a surprise for Democrats: Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) announced that in an email to his office, the administration told him that the Democratic measure itself was “patently unconstitutional.”

“Not maybe unconstitutional, not perhaps unconstitutional, not arguably unconstitutional, but patently unconstitutional,” Lungren said. “So [Walz] has presented us with the kind of I guess shell game we talk about, where it looks good when it’s presented to you, but by sleight of hand, it makes sure that it has no impact whatsoever.”

Lungren added that counter to House Democrats’ claims, their measure would not go straight to the president’s desk because it only included the same language as the Senate bill – it wasn’t the actual bill itself.

“The gentleman says it’ll go right to the president,” Lungren said. “That is not true! This is not the bill sent over to us. It’s the same language. So it does not go right to the president, number one. Number two, unless the president is sending me misinformation via his messenger, the president’s position is it’s patently unconstitutional. DOJ’s position, his Department of Justice, says it’s patently unconstitutional. So I guess the gentleman is arguing to us, send it to the president, so that he may commit a patently unconstitutional act.”

The Senate-passed bill had its own share of controversy on the floor last month; Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) spent several minutes arguing with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the resolution’s sponsor, about whether or not it was constitutional.

House Republicans have argued that their version of a proposal to dock members’ pay is constitutional because it wouldn’t change their annual pay levels; it would just withhold disbursements of pay during any period of a shutdown.

The House Democratic measure ultimately failed Friday on a straight party-line vote, 188-to-237. One Republican, Rep. Louie Gohmert (Texas), joined Democrats in voting “yes,” and one Democrat, Rep. Charlie Gonzalez (Texas), voted “no.”

During the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns, some members of Congress tried to not take their paychecks – even calling the congressional pay office and requesting that their checks be stopped -- only to find that they were legally barred from doing so. In the end, some of them ended up donating their paychecks to charity or to the federal Treasury.

— Staff writer Ben Pershing also contributed to this story.

By  |  03:14 PM ET, 04/01/2011

 
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