House Democratic leaders have decided to withdraw part of a massive federal spending bill set for a vote later this week after an uproar over whether members of Congress might see their first pay raise in a decade.
“We are delaying consideration of the Legislative Branch appropriations bill while we continue to discuss the issue of the cost-of-living adjustment,” said Mariel Saez, a spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).
Other portions of the bill, including funding for the military and for health and human services programs, will move forward.
The move is a setback for Hoyer, who advocated restoring the automatic increase — arguing that a rising cost of living in Washington has strained the finances of lawmakers, especially those who are not independently wealthy.
The issue was hotly debated in a House leadership meeting Monday night, aides said, with Hoyer arguing to push forward with the bill while others said the move was politically unwise.
The issue could be revisited in another spending bill later this month, the senior aide said.
Among those most vocally opposing the pay hike were scores of Democratic freshmen. Several authored or co-sponsored floor amendments to ensure lawmakers would not see a raise.
Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) said Monday that lawmakers were prepared to vote against the overall bill, funding scores of federal agencies, if the pay hike was included.
“Whether you want to call it a COLA, whether you want to call it a pay increase, whatever it is, that’s not something Congress should be focusing on right now,” he said. “We have other things we gotta work on.”
Aside from Hoyer, the biggest proponent of the pay raise has been a newcomer: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the 29-year-old rising liberal star who has made income inequality a key issue.
After Hoyer pulled the pay-raise issue Monday evening, she said she understood the optics but called it “short sighted” because the frozen-salary structure on Capitol Hill created too many incentives for members and staff to leave for greener pastures at lobbying firms on K Street.
“It may not be politically popular to say but honestly this is why there’s so much pressure to turn to lobbying firms and to cash in on members’ service after people leave,” she said.
Monday’s blowup followed private bipartisan discussions about trying to minimize the political blowback from a congressional pay hike, with Democratic and Republican leaders quietly agreeing to hold their mutual fire to help out their rank-and-file members. Some leaders have also argued that it is a staff retention measure, because salaries for congressional aides cannot exceed those of lawmakers.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) declined to comment Monday on Democrats’ decision to pull the legislative-branch funding bill but defended the need for a pay increase.
“There hasn’t been a COLA in 10 years,” he said. “I think all federal employees should be treated equally.”
Lawmakers passed a 1.9 percent across-the-board pay raise for federal workers, not including members of Congress, earlier this year. The cost-of-living adjustment, if adopted, would add about $4,500 to lawmakers’ yearly paychecks — roughly a 2.6 percent raise.
Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.