The House Appropriations Committee yesterday paved the way for a vote on pay raises for members of Congress and senior government executives as it approved a continuation of stopgap federal funding and a grab-bag $5.4 billion Democratic jobs bill.
Across the Capitol, meanwhile, a handful of conservative Republicans plunged the Senate into a filibuster over an administration-backed proposal to raise the gasoline tax a nickel a gallon to finance highway improvements. This jeopardizes Congress' plans to adjourn for the year by next Friday.
Having made little progress in the first two weeks of the lame-duck session, the Senate was so mired in unfinished business yesterday that leaders threatened to keep it in session Christmas week or make senators come back Dec. 27 to complete action on major legislation, including military spending as well as the gasoline tax.
The chaos in the Senate was so great that by the end of the day there was the distinct possibility of filibusters within filibusters, including a talkathon against proposals to freeze natural gas prices as part of the already-filibustered gasoline tax bill.
In the House, the Democratic jobs proposal ran into a torrent of Republican ridicule, raising prospects of a partisan free-for-all over the anti-recession issue before the 97th Congress adjourns.
"This bill was drafted with a magnet. . . every nut and bolt within five miles was drawn into this bill," complained Rep. Silvio O. Conte (R-Mass.), ranking Republican on Appropriations and a frequent defender of social welfare spending. "These aren't programs, they're fantasies. E.T. would love this bill."
The Appropriations Committee action on congressional and executive-branch pay raises tosses the politically sensitive issue to the full House.
This improves, but probably only marginally, the outlook for raising the pay cap -- $60,662 for members of Congress and $57,500 to $58,500 for senior civil servants -- that has been in effect since 1977, according to committee staff members.
What the committee did was delete language retaining the cap from the "continuing resolution" that would fund the government from Dec. 17, when existing funding authority expires, until March 15. This means the issue will have to be resolved on the House floor when the resolution comes up for a vote on Tuesday.
The action may improve chances somewhat for a pay raise because opponents will have to take the initiative to restore the cap, a reversal of previous situations when proponents had to take the initiative.
But pay raise advocates said they would not use any parliamentary maneuvers, such as trying to block consideration of an amendment to restore the cap, in order to prevent a fair vote on the issue.
There was talk late yesterday of a compromise that would provide some increase in pay, although not the full $17,000 a year that members of Congress would get under some interpretations of the existing formula for cost-of-living increases.
The House has been extremely skittish about raising its own pay, which affects executive employes as well because their salaries are tied directly to the congressional pay level.
However, some members have indicated that a post-election session presents a never-better opportunity for grappling with the pay raise issue. And leaders of both houses have indicated that they might look favorably on a pay raise if it could be approved openly and directly, as opposed to the usual backhanded methods.
Included in the continuing resolution was less money for military and economic aid to Israel than the Senate Appropriations Committee had approved in a foreign aid money bill that prompted protests from the administration. House members said it represented a compromise between the Senate and administration positions.
The bill also omitted funding for the Federal Trade Commission, largely because funding would have attracted floor amendments aimed at further eroding FTC powers. The Senate is expected to add money for the FTC.
The Democratic jobs measure was approved as part of the continuing resolution by a party-line vote of 25 to 18, as Democrats brushed aside Republican objections that the jobs money would almost certainly prompt a veto by President Reagan.
A standoff between Reagan and Congress could result in a government shutdown if differences are not resolved by the time offices are due to reopen on Monday, Dec. 20, the first business day after the authority expires. A dispute over stopgap funding closed the government for a day at this time last year.
The jobs measure contains money for hundreds of projects, from repair of government buildings to sanitation facilities for Indian reservations. In general, spending would be targeted at areas of heaviest unemployment.
In addition, some emergency aid for the unemployed is provided, including $50 million to the United Way of America for food and shelter services. The government would also spend $100 million on the purchase of 15,000 made-in-America cars.
Some members joked that money was provided for programs they had never heard of, such as Small Business Administration "national resources development grants."
While there was no official estimate of the number of jobs that might be created, Democrats have said they hoped to provide employment for about 300,000 of the 12 million currently unemployed Americans.
"We need to look at what is necessary to try to maintain this country . . . ," said Committee Chairman Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.). "We're not trying to create jobs . . . we're trying to generate jobs by helping our country."
Conte responded that Reagan would veto the bill as the Democrats drafted it and added, "We're going to be here singing 'Jingle Bells' on Dec. 24th."
The Senate seemed to bear Conte out. At one point, Majority Leader Howard H. Baker Jr. (R-Tenn.) suggested that a quickie funding measure, perhaps lasting until Dec. 22 or through Jan. 1, might have to be passed to keep the government running while Congress tries to complete its work. An aide to Baker dismissed suggestions that Baker was only trying to jolt the Senate into action, saying, "We're past that point."
A test vote of 79 to 10 on a procedural issue indicated strong support for getting past the first filibuster hurdle, at least. But further delaying tactics are expected after a cloture vote, scheduled for Monday, on proceeding with consideration of the measure. At this point, riders, including the natural gas price freeze and a Senate Democrats' jobs program, will be considered.
Meanwhile, the Senate must also find time to consider military spending, including the controversial MX missile, and the continuing resolution, which will probably include the House Democrats' jobs plan.
As the filibuster began, opponents of the gasoline tax increase attacked it largely as an ineffective way of trying to provide jobs. "This may be the first time in history that a lame duck has tried to give birth to a turkey," said Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).