While the rest of the House danced coyly around the question of voting themselves a pay raise, Reps. Michael D. Barnes and Joseph L. Fisher worried about the fate of 22,000 high-level federal officials, some of whom hadn't had a raise in years.
As the two Washington-area Democrats saw it, the situation was simply unfair. The economic fate of some of their constituents had been tied to a congressional pay increase only because many congressman "want to have some leverage to push through their own pay raise," Fisher said yesterday.
So when the pay question came back to the House floor for the third time in five days yesterday, Barnes of Maryland and Fisher of Virginia had devised a plan to eliminate the linkage. Although their issue was considered parochial and their support negligible, they hoped to use parliamentary finesse to win their point.
In the end, their tactics failed, although both they and the high-level officials gained. The House ended debate on the pay question by approving 5.5-percent pay raises for both congressmen and the nonelected officials by a vote of 208-203.
But regardless of the outcome, Barnes's and Fisher's efforts yesterday provided a case study in the niceties of legislative strategy and parliamentary maneuvering.
The key question was exactly when they should offer an amendment separating the issue of bureaucrats' pay from the more ticklish issue of a congressional pay raise. Offered by itself, such an amendment would win little support, no matter what appeals Barnes and Fisher might make.
"Most members feel that if the two things are disconnected, there'd be no hope of getting a congressional pay raise," explained Virginia Democrat Herbert E. Harris II, an ally of Fisher's.
But if offered as a substitute for an even more unpalatable amendment, they reasoned, the Fisher-Barnes proposal might be seen in an entirely different light. Congressmen who would otherwise be indifferent or hostile to the separation of issues might end up supporting it as the lesser of two evils.
Relying on this strategy, Barnes, Fisher and their legislative aides spent hours between Friday and Monday evenings trying to figure out what opponents of the congressional pay raise might offer in the way of amendments to the bill.
Based on last week's debates, legislative aides to the two congressmen said, it was likely that some conservative Republican would offer an amendment to the pay resolution eliminating the raises for all involved.
When this proposal was offered, the two congressmen agreed, Fisher would offer his amendment as a substitute. In that way, they hoped to attract the support of congressmen opposed to the so-called "zero amendment."
Soon after debate on the pay issue began yesterday, the "zero amendment" was offered by Illinois Republican George M. O'Brien. At 1:40 p.m. after a few speeches praising and denouncing the O'Brien amendment, Fisher rose to offer his substitute, according to the script.
But New York Democrat Peter Peyser finessed him with yet another amendment, a substitute for the Fisher-Barnes proposal.
The Peyser amendment required that congressional raises be given only to those congressmen who voted for their raise. Once offered, it generated 45 minutes of humorous debate, and the focus of the House shifted irretrievably away from Fisher's proposal.
First, California Democrat George Miller got up to denounce Peyser's amendment as "the dumbest amendment I've ever seen proposed," and "a major infringement on the liberty of us to cast our votes as we feel."
The Illinois Republican Henry J. Hyde, brandishing a copy of the U.S. Criminal Code, said "Title 18, Section 201 fairly bristles with admonitions that such a proposal is highly illegal," adding that it would amount to bribery. Hyde then asked what would happen to the raises of members who failed to vote. When the debate ended, all three amendments failed by resounding voice votes.
But when that fracas was over and the basic issue of the pay raise came before the full House, a long, suspenseful vote ended with a 208-to-203 victory for the forces supporting the pay raise. Fisher and Barnes had lost their own skirmish but their objective -- to win at least a $2,600 raise for the nonelected officials who make at least $47,500 a year -- had been achieved.
"These people hadn't received a raise in 2 1/2 . . . going on three years," Fisher said.
"We may have lost, but the end result was not all that bad," said Barnes' legislative aide Matt Pincus.
The pay issue still faces Senate action.