A Play-With-Pay Scheme

Sen. David Vitter sought unsuccessfully to sink the Senate's $410 billion spending bill.
Sen. David Vitter sought unsuccessfully to sink the Senate's $410 billion spending bill. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Sen. David Vitter (R-Gomorrah) has more moves than a Bourbon Street professional.

The Louisiana senator's reelection has been in doubt ever since he confessed to a "serious sin" when his phone number was found in the records of the late D.C. Madam. Everybody from porn star Stormy Daniels to Christian conservative leader Tony Perkins has talked about challenging him next year for his seat.

But Vitter wasn't about to be forced into submission by a prostitution scandal. In the 20 months since his disgrace, he has doubled his efforts to tie down the Democratic-led Senate, most recently with yesterday's attempt to force his colleagues to vote to give themselves a pay raise.

It was a clever maneuver. In a time of want, Vitter put his colleagues in the unenviable position of voting to keep the 20-year tradition of automatic cost-of-living increases. "The autopilot pay raise really is offensive to the American people!" he proclaimed with populist indignation.

It was so clever, in fact, that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), desperate to spare his colleagues the excruciating vote, offered his own plan to abolish the automatic pay raises by unanimous consent, without a vote.

"Objection," replied Vitter -- thus guaranteeing the defeat of his own proposal.

As Stormy Daniels says, "Politics can't be any dirtier of a job than the one I am already in."

Why was Vitter for a pay freeze before he was against it? The answer has less to do with congressional salaries than with the $410 billion spending bill the Senate passed yesterday. Leaders of the House, which had passed the measure, said they wouldn't take it up again -- which meant that any change to the legislation would essentially kill the whole thing.

That left an opening for Vitter, who opposed the spending bill. He tried to amend the measure with a proposal that few lawmakers would dare to oppose in a recession: canceling the automatic increases in lawmaker salaries, now at $174,000. Using a parliamentary tactic, Vitter forced Reid to schedule a vote on his amendment for a vote.

"People see their 401(k)s cut in half, people see their life savings dwindling every day," Vitter proclaimed on the Senate floor on Monday. "And yet up here in Congress, a majority in Congress rolls along with policy they view as enormously irresponsible and, in some cases, downright offensive."

Echoed Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.): "At a time when people are taking pay cuts just to keep their job, Senator Vitter's idea to be more transparent in what we do here in Washington makes a lot of sense."

"In fact," concurred Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), "I can't think of a better time to send that message to a public that is becoming increasingly cynical about the actions of the Congress."

But the cynicism was just beginning. To spare Democrats the spectacle of voting to defend their raises, Reid drafted legislation that would abolish the automatic raises but wouldn't sink the big spending bill because it was a separate measure. Vitter was furious.

"Pure partisanship for partisanship sake and political games and a cynical approach," he railed yesterday morning on the Senate floor. "Maneuvering and cynical political games," he repeated, looking into the C-SPAN camera in the gallery. "It's a cynical maneuver. . . . What's swirling around my amendment is a cynical political game."

Of course, a powerful case could be made that Vitter was playing a game of his own last night when Reid took the floor to propose just the sort of ban on automatic pay raises that Vitter sought.

"I agree with Senator Vitter that the cost-of-living adjustments for members of Congress should not be automatic," he said. "By passing this legislation as stand-alone, it can become law without threatening completion of this appropriations bill."

"I would object," Vitter replied. "I think the stand-alone bill is nothing more than cover, nothing more than something to point to when it will not be taken up on the floor of the House."

"It's as clear as the daylight hour that my friend from Louisiana doesn't want the underlying bill to pass," Reid countered. "I'm sorry that the senator from Louisiana obviously is not serious about passing this legislation."

Vitter asked whether "the speaker of the House would offer a public comment to give Senator Reid's bill a vote on the House floor in the near future."

"I can't represent what the speaker is going to do," Reid answered.

"Don't be fooled," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said of Vitter. "This is a cheap shot."

But a good one. The objection from the Louisianan killed Reid's proposal, and minutes later, the Senate voted 52 to 47 to kill Vitter's amendment.

It was a win-win-win situation. Democrats got their spending bill. Lawmakers got to keep their automatic pay increases. And Vitter got something other than prostitutes to discuss with the voters back home.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company