WASHINGTON - The House voted Thursday to let members of Congress receive $3,800 cost-of-living pay raises next year, underlining how the robust economy and surging federal surpluses have helped ease what has long been a sensitive political issue.
On a 250-173 vote, lawmakers signaled their assent to a 2.7 percent increase in their current $141,300 annual salaries that would take effect in January. Majorities of both Democrats and Republicans supported the raise, reflecting an agreement between party leaders not to attack each others' incumbents, during this year's campaigns, for their votes.
During the few minutes of debate the issue received, no one spoke in favor of the increase. Two lawmakers complained about the obscure procedural vote that was used to decide the matter, and only one said he opposed the raise itself.
``Where I come from, the average salary for a family in my district is $25,000,'' said Rep. Ernie Fletcher, R-Ky. He said the congressional increase would cost taxpayers $2.5 million - ``a lot of money for folks back in Kentucky.''
It would be lawmakers' third pay raise in the past four years and their second in a row. During this same four-year period, the economy has boomed and annual federal deficits have changed into ever-growing surpluses. Prior to that, the last congressional pay raise took effect in 1993.
Further spotlighting the issue's softer edge, this would be the first increase lawmakers have approved during an election year since 1992.
Members of Congress automatically receive cost-of-living raises unless they vote to block them, a mechanism they established in a 1989 law.
Thursday's procedural vote came during debate on a $29.1 billion bill financing the Treasury Department and some smaller agencies for fiscal 2001, which begins Oct. 1. By tradition, the Treasury bill - which contains no language providing the pay raise - is used for any attempt to block it.
The Senate version of that bill also lacks language blocking the increase, which seems likely to be enacted this year.
By law, the congressional increase means identical 2.7 percent raises for more than 1,000 top officials of the executive branch, including the vice president. By a law passed last year, the president's current $200,000 salary will be doubled to $400,000 when the next chief executive takes office, and will be unaffected by the congressional increase.
The House's Treasury bill - $800 million larger than this year's, but $2.1 billion smaller than President Clinton's request - is among a growing number of spending measures for next year that are becoming caught up in an intensifying budget fight between Congress and the White House.
It faces a White House veto threat because its $8.5 billion for the Internal Revenue Service, though $261 million over this year, is $466 million less than Clinton wants. It also has less than Clinton wants for some counterterrorism programs.
It would also forbid government agencies from giving preferences to Smith & Wesson guns when purchasing weapons for federal law enforcement officers. Federal officials have considered doing so in the aftermath of the giant gun-maker's agreement to begin using trigger-locks and other safety steps.
A report accompanying the bill also would require Hillary Clinton to provide monthly reports on the travel expenses of her New York campaign for the U.S. Senate. Republicans have complained of taxpayer-subsidized military flights to New York, though her aides say the first lady is reimbursing the government for the travel at first-class rates.
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