Washington lawmakers would reject pay raise -- if it comes to a vote

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers from Washington state say they would prefer not to be receiving a $4,700-a-year pay raise amid a recession and with millions of people unemployed. But they may not be given a chance to turn it down.

The 2.8 percent raise, which would increase base salaries to $174,000, took effect Tuesday as the new congressional session began. The raise is automatic unless members block it. There are no indications congressional leaders will bring it to a vote.

"In light of the current financial situation in Washington state and around the country, I oppose increasing the salaries of members of Congress," Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash, said in a statement. "As public officials we should not be giving ourselves a raise when many of the people we represent are suffering financial hardship."

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she opposed the pay raise, but she added that Congress' top priority is quick passage of an economic stimulus bill.

"I have voted several times to forgo the congressional pay raise and will do so again if it comes up for a vote," Murray said in a statement. "But what's most important is for Congress to work with President-elect Obama to pass a stimulus plan that gets Americans back to work in good family-wage jobs as soon as possible."

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash, agreed.

"If the congressional pay raise comes up for a vote I'll vote against it, but right now I'm focused on economic recovery and job growth," Larsen said in a statement. "We need action on the economy now to create jobs in Washington state, invest in local roads, highways and transit and help families who are struggling."

The last time lawmakers turned down a pay raise was in 2007, when a Democratic-led Congress decided to forgo it because it hadn't approved an increase in the minimum wage.

A year ago, members received a 2.5 percent increase.

The issue is a sensitive one for lawmakers, who devised the automatic pay-raise system to sidestep an annual fight over what they call a cost-of-living allowance.

Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., dismissed the system as a "procedural gimmick," though he said an independent commission had concluded members of Congress were not paid enough. Baird said he would co-sponsor a bill to freeze congressional salaries.

"We've got millions of Americans getting pink slips and being laid off," Baird said in a telephone interview. "Congress needs to set a proper example."

If the pay raise wasn't blocked, Baird said, he would give his away to charity as he has in the past.

Washington state's other senator, Democrat Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., would also vote to turn down the pay increase if given a chance, spokeswoman Ciaran Clayton said.

"She has voted against it in the past and would do so again," Clayton said.

In an e-mail, Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., didn't indicate whether he opposed the pay raise. But Hastings said the burden rests with the Democratic majority to bring the issue to the House floor.

Democratic Rep. Norm Dicks and Republican Rep. Dave Reichert did not respond to e-mails seeking comment on the pay raise.

(Rob Hotakainen of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed.)