House Democratic leaders are postponing consideration of a bill that would include a pay raise for members of Congress, after facing a major backlash from the party’s most vulnerable members.
Top Democrats agreed in a closed-door meeting Monday night to pull a key section of this week’s massive funding bill to avoid escalating a clash within their caucus over whether to hike salaries for lawmakers and staff for the first time in a decade, multiple lawmakers confirmed.
At least 15 Democrats — mostly freshmen in competitive districts — had pushed to freeze pay after some Democratic and Republican leaders quietly agreed to the slight pay increase earlier this month.
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) confirmed to POLITICO after the meeting that he “thinks” they would pull the bill so that Democrats can resolve the issue of congressional pay raises.
The issue flared up in the Democratic leadership meeting on Monday, where there was an intense discussion of whether to force members to go on the record about a pay raise, which some battleground Democrats believed would create a target on their back in 2020.
“Nobody wants to vote to give themselves a raise. There’s nothing good about that,” said Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.), who attended Monday’s meeting.
But Hill said she also believed the issue deserved more discussion to ensure that stagnant pay wasn’t deterring average Americans from running for office — particularly if they already live in districts with high costs of living.
The potential vote set off Democratic political consultants who warned that if members were on the record supporting a pay raise for themselves it could be seen as tone deaf. One strategist called it “political suicide” for freshman Democrats in swing districts if they were made to take the vote.
During a monthly Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee held Monday with staffers who handle communications for the Frontline program, which protects members in battleground seats, a Democratic pollster who was invited to brief staffers on different issues, raised concerns about the pay increase.
Jefrey Pollock, the president of Global Strategy Group, told staffers and DCCC in the meeting that a vote to raise lawmaker’s pay was “problematic.”
“It feels like a potential ready-made attack ad,” Pollock told POLITICO Monday evening.
Several Democrats in battleground seats have scrambled behind the scenes to convince Democratic leaders, including Hoyer, to backtrack on the decision. Several have personally approached Hoyer to protest the move after he and other party leaders agreed to the cost-of-living-increase. It would amount to an extra $4,500 for members, who currently make $174,000.
Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-S.C.) — who sits in a district that Trump carried by more than six points — warned Hoyer on the floor last week that the move would be bad politics and bad policy, according to a Democratic aide familiar with the discussions.
Cunningham later authored his own amendment to halt the pay increase. Similar amendments were also drafted by freshman Democrats like Rep. Ben McAdams (D-Utah) — whose district leans Republican by 12 points, and Rep. Anthony Brindisi (D-N.Y.) — whose district favors Republicans by six points.
And even if Congress does approve the pay hike, several vulnerable Democrats, including Cunningham and Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.), have vowed to send any additional cash back to the Treasury or donate it to charity.
The House still plans to begin voting on the massive spending package to fund several agencies but will hold off on the section of the bill that sets funding levels for both branches of Congress — creating an unexpected scramble for congressional appropriators.
Without action on the floor, the pay increase would automatically go into effect under current law. Democratic leaders would need to allow a specific vote to block the cost of living increase, which members have done every year for a decade.
Democratic spending leaders have said the pay raise has bipartisan support. But it carries huge political risk for both parties. Congress hasn’t given itself a pay hike since the depths of Great Recession in January 2009.
Several battleground Democrats were infuriated by their leadership’s decision to move forward, which they saw as inviting attacks from Republicans back home.
The National Republican Campaign Committee, the GOP’s campaign arm, seized on the issue last week and blasted House Democrats as “socialist elitists” for considering a cost of living raise in the upcoming spending package.
But it was later revealed that top Republicans, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, had already backed the measure, and even agreed not to attack the other party over it in a private meeting last week. The NRCC then removed its release denouncing Democrats.
Democrats in Monday’s leadership meeting first blamed Republicans for the blow up, complaining that McCarthy and the GOP campaign arm were trying to capitalize on the issue to score political points after previously agreeing not to do so. But then Hoyer said not only would McCarthy and House Minority Whip Steve Scalise support the increase but the NRCC executive director was also on board, according to sources familiar.
Leaders in both parties have blamed the stagnant pay for turning away qualified congressional candidates and staff. When adjusted for inflation, lawmakers’ salaries have decreased 15 percent since 2009, according to the Congressional Research Service.
Melanie Zanona contributed to this story.