House-Senate conferees, in a gift to themselves and their colleagues, last night approved a 17 percent pay increase -- more than $10,000 a year -- for all members of Congress effective Jan 1.
By lifting the existing pay freeze on high-ranking government officials, the conferees also paved the way for comparable salary increases for an estimated 34,000 top-level federal bureaucrats.
The conferees' action which ran counter to earlier votes on the issue in both houses, came as Congress gave final approval to a three-year extension of revenue-sharing with local governments.
The Senate also approved and sent to President Carter a bill raising the government's borrowing authority by $10 billion to $935.1 billion -- stopgap action that may force the incoming Reagan administration to take the political discomfiting step of seeking another debt-ceiling increase early in its term.
The pay raise was the final ornament added to a "Christmas tree" spending bill, loaded with goodies for nearly every interest group, that the lame-duck 96th Congress has to enact before adjourning, presumably this weekend.
The whole package is subject to votes today in the House and Senate, both of which previously avoided the political embarrassment of recorded votes to increase their own salaries by approving retention of the pay freeze in the omnibus spending measure. The Senate took a separate vote on the pay raise earlier this week, rejecting it 69 to 21, while the House simply voted for continuation of the freeze as part of the overall package.
The two houses could accept the pay raise this time, by arguing that they must swallow it, however reluctently, in order to keep the government running, which is the ostensible purpose of the spending package.
"It looks as if we don't have the guts to stand up on the Senate floor and vote the way we want," commented Sen. William Proxmire (D-Wis.) as the conferees prepared to approve the pay raise.
"We don't," added Sen. Henry Bellmon (R-Okla.).
The conferees, waiting until the end of a 5 1/2-hour session to deal with the pay matter, narrowly rejected the raise three times under pressure from Sen. Jim Sasser (D-Tenn.), who argued that it was "the wrong signal to send to the American people" about congressional priorites.
But then, on a fourth vote, Minority Whip Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chief advocate of the raise, produced two proxy votes that provided a 6-to-5 edge in favor of the pay raise.
"This is a cost of living increase, not a pay raise," argued Stevens, contending that the government has an "overwhelming number of jobs in the executive branch that are vacant because people won't take increased responsibility without increased pay."
That may be so, retorted Proxmire, but people won't watch Congress raise its own pay "without being goddam mad."
During the discussion, Appropriations Committee Chairman Warren D. Magnuson (D-Wash.) said he had heard from President-elect Ronald Reagan "a couple of hours ago and he urged that we take the pay cap off."
The pay increase would raise congressional salaries staring next year from $60,662.50 to $70,900 anually. Comparable raises also would go to government employees at GS15 and above, and to employes of the judicial branch.
The conferees also went along with Stevens in approving severance pay for Senate staffers who lost their jobs in the massive turnover from the recent elections, prompting bitter objections from House Leader-elect Robert H. Michel (R-Ill.). "That's a bad principle whether it's in your house or in our house," he complained.
In other action on the spending bill, the conferees agreed to drop language that would have barred the Justice Department from intervening in school desegregation suits involving busing. But they insisted on delaying implementation of the new nine-digit zip code until June 1.
The conferees also dropped a Senate proposal for tax relief for book publishers, agreed to delay designation of any more scenic rivers until after the Reagan administration takes office, and voted to cut public service jobs, although not by as much as the Senate wanted. In all, they resolved 148 amendments that the Senate had added to the House-passed version of the measure.
They failed to reach agreement on how far to go in restricting the Medicaid-financed abortions -- a dispute that has kept the House and Senate from going home in the past and could do so again. The two houses will have to resolve the abortion issue before they can pass the spending measure and adjourn.
Action on revenue sharing, which appeared in doubt earlier this week because of a House-Senate dispute over attaching strings to such aid, came as the Senate agreed by voice vote to a bill passed by the House.
The bill, which now goes to Carter, who is expected to sign it into law, extends $4.6 billion in annual aid to local governments through 1983.
It also drops revenue sharing for state governments during fiscal 1981 but authorizes it at a level of $2.3 billion a year for fiscal 1982 and 1983.
The dispute had arisen over a House demand -- which turned out to be nonnegotiable -- that states give up an equal amount of money in categorical grants if they receive revenue-sharing money. In the end, the Senate, which had wanted no strings grants for the states, relented and accepted the House conditions.
The program, which started during the Nixon administration and expired last September, has become highly popular with, county and municipal officials, who lobbied relentlessly for its continuation. Its renewal was hailed as a "victory for all cities, large and small," by Gary, Ind., Mayor Richard Hatcher, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, although Hatcher said he regretted the lack of anti-recession aid to cities with large numbers of unemployed workers as well as the restrictions on state grants.
The conferees' dropping of the anti-busing language heads off a confrontation with President Carter, who had vowed to veto the entire spending measure if the language were retained.
This posed a dilemma for Congress because, without approval of the spending measure, money will run out at midnight Monday for many large federal agencies, including the Justice, State, Commerce, Labor and Health and Human Services departments. The new spending measures would provide funding through June 28 for agencies which have not received offical appropriations from Congress.
Antibusing forces in both houses were consoled, in giving up the Justice Department restriction, by the thought that the Reagan administration, is expected to support curbs on busing next year.
In the abortion dispute, the House has voted to restrict Medicaid abortions to cases where the life of the woman is jeopardized, while the Senate would also permit Medicaid abortions cases of rape and incest.
House and Senate leaders agreed to keep Congress in session today in hopes of completing action on the spending measure and adjourning without having to return next week.