Interior Secretary Ken Salazar

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is asking the Senate to drop efforts to increase his salary, saying he’d rather earn less than his Cabinet colleagues than buckle to what he called “attempted coercion” by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.).

At issue is a constitutional clause barring lawmakers from taking an executive branch position for which they voted to raise the salary. Salazar, a former senator from Colorado, voted to increase Cabinet secretary salaries before taking the Interior job in 2009.

The Founding Fathers — always thinking ahead — worried that lawmakers would approve Cabinet pay raises and then jump ship and take one of the more lucrative positions.

To get around the clause, Congress for years has reduced the salary of a position to its previous rate before confirming a lawmaker to serve in the position. The “Saxbe fix” — named for former Sen. William Saxbe, who moved from the Senate to serve as attorney general in 1973 — was also used to roll back the secretary of state’s salary before Hillary Rodham Clinton took the job.

Salazar earns $180,100 and Clinton is paid $186,600, thousands less than their predecessors. But Salazar is now eligible for full pay, because his old Senate term expired in January. (Clinton wouldn't be eligible for a pay bump until her old Senate term ends in Jan. 2013.)

Last week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) introduced legislation restoring the interior secretary’ salary, arguing Salazar deserved the pay bump.

Vitter, still smarting over Interior’s decision to scale back oil drilling after last year's BP oil spill, blocked the move and said he would continue to do so until Salazar restores all previous drilling permits and approves new ones.

“When the rate of permits issued for new deepwater exploratory wells reaches pre-moratorium levels (so 6 per month), I will end my efforts to block your salary increase,” Vitter said in a letter sent to Salazar on Monday.

The secretary responded Tuesday, telling Reid to abandon the pay raise plan, because Vitter's position on the issue, “is dependent upon the outcomes of his attempted coercion of public acts” at the Interior Department.

“At the Department of the Interior, our oversight and regulation of offshore energy production is -- and will continue to be — guided by principles of integrity, the public intereset, and much-needed safety and environmental standards,” Salazar said. “The public deserves nothing less.”

Reid also blasted Vitter’s position, saying Wednesday that “it is wrong for Sen. Vitter to try to get something in return for moving forward on a matter that the Senate has considered routine for more than a century.”

But Vitter said Wednesday he’s glad Salazar isn’t pushing for the greater pay.

“Now I hope he starts earning what he already makes and properly issues new permits for much needed drilling in the Gulf,” Vitter said Wednesday.

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