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House Leaders Mull Pay Hikes

Top House leaders are weighing a plan to help lawmakers to a cost-of-living increase, which could add about $5,000 to an annual salary of $136,673.

Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., raised the issue at a meeting earlier this year with Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt, according to aides to the two men.

John Feehery, Hastert's spokesman, noted that under current law, members of Congress are entitled to an annual cost-of-living increase. The speaker, he said, "is in favor of having that law continue."

Gephardt, D-Mo., was noncommittal, according to an aide, Laura Nichols. She said any proposal to increase compensation would have to be aired in the party caucus, and be subject to a vote in the full House.

Members of Congress last received an increase two years ago, after the Republican and Democratic leadership agreed not to make a political issue of the subject. In other years, lawmakers have voted to stop the increase from taking effect.

While there was no noticeable public backlash against the 1997 pay increase, some lawmakers objected at the time. The issue would almost certainly provoke debate on the House floor again this year.

Under a 1989 law, lawmakers are entitled to a cost-of-living increase that is pegged to the pay raise the president proposes each year for federal workers.

President Clinton recommended a 4.4 percent increase for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. A 4 percent increase in congressional pay would amount to more than $5,400 and raise the salary to more than $142,000.

While aides said a cost-of-living hike stands a good chance of taking effect, a separate proposal for an increase in compensation seemed to be faltering.

The suggestion, floated by Rep. Bill Thomas of California, would allow most lawmakers to claim a $125-per-day allowance to defray their living expenses in Washington.

The allowance could be claimed for any day the House meets, to be paid from the funds set aside for office expenses. Thus, any money the lawmaker claimed personally would have to come from staff salaries or other expenses, such as equipment.

Even if Congress met for little more than a third of the year, lawmakers would be eligible for more than $14,000 in increased compensation, an increase of more than 10 percent.

But Hastert distanced himself from the proposal. "There are a lot of proposals out there, and the speaker does not endorse this one," said Feehery.

Written by David Espo

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