Some 70 House members milled around the floor or hid in the cloakroom yesterday until they were sure enough votes had been cast to preserve their recent $12,900 pay raise.

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Still, members working with the Democratic leadership, which opposed repealing the raise, were taking no chances. They blocked the space around the table in the well of the House in case members tried to change their votes.

In the end, the 29 per cent pay increase for members of Congress - from $44,600 annually to $57,500 - was saved by a 241-to-181 vote. Also saved were salary increases for 20,000 upper-grade federal workers and congressional staffers, tied into the amendment by the Democratic leadership as a way of making it harder to vote for any pay cut.

Though House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.) was predicting a "close" vote as late as yesterday morning, much of the enthusiasm for cutting the pay rate seemed to [WORD ILLEGIBLE] at the time of the debate in [LINE ILLEGIBLE] here which took effect March."

Some members explained that they [WORD ILLEGIBLE] now for a pay raise though they had opposed it earlier, because "circumstances have changed."

The chief "change" seemed to be that a vote was now being allowed. The house leadership had prevented a vote earlier in the year, fearing that the pay raise, recommended by a quadrennial federal pay commission, would be rejected.

Under a system adopted in 1967, the commission's recommendation, after being transmitted by the President, automatically takes effect unless either house vetoes it within 30 days.

There was widespread criticism from members and in the media because the raise was accepted without a vote.

"I have historically voted against a pay raise and if the question of the pay raise had come up [in February] I would have voted against it,' Rep. David E. Satterfield III (D-Va.) said. But he added that "circumstances had changed" and cited the fact that Congress had voted as ethics code that puts a 15 per cent limit on a member's outside income.

"I would have voted against the matter given the chance earlier this year," Rep. David R. Bowen (D-Miss.) said. But he cited the fact that both the House and the Senate have now rejected an estimated 6.3 per cent cost-of-living increase scheduled to take effect in October as one reason for his turnabout.

O'Neill received a standing ovation for an emotional speech in which he pleaded that many members with children in college needed the money. "Do the decent thing for your colleagues and do not vote for a reduction in pay at this time," he said.

Perhaps more effective was a warning that the Senate leadership had assured him that the Senate would not vote to cut its salary. O'Neill then raised the spector of Senate Staffers and committee counsels being paid more than House members.

And House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) said members had no reason to "cower" because of the pay raise. If their salaries had "kept pace" with the cost-of-living increase since 1969 (the date of the last pay raise), they would be making $70,125 today, he said. If they had kept pace with civil service pay, they would be making $70,550. If they have kept pace with blue-collar pay increases, they would be making $72,250.

If they had kept pace with increases for the news media, they would be making $77,500, Wright said, as the members hooted and booed at the mention of the media.