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Freshmen 42: Most oppose $4,400 pay hike

The House Democratic freshmen have a hefty gift that they'd like to offer up to taxpayers: their pay raise for 2008.

Last night, in one of those procedural votes that would cause headaches if Capitol Briefing were to explain the full parliamentary nature of it all, the House voted 244-181 to allow themselves a $4,400 hike in pay for the next fiscal year. This bumps pay to $170,000 for rank-and-file members.

Of those 181 votes against the pay raise, 36 came from the Freshmen 42, the Democrats who catapulted Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) into the role of House speaker this year.

Their attitude was perhaps best summed up by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who won an open seat previously held by a veteran GOP incumbent. "Last year I promised Southern Arizonans that I would not vote for a pay raise until Congress balances the federal budget," the Tucson lawmaker said last night. "Today I fulfilled that promise."

Let their be no mistake, the congressional pay raise -- a cost-of-living adjustment based on inflation -- is one of the more purely symbolic political moves taken up annually.

Long-time incumbents in very safe districts invariably vote for the COLA increase. Take Reps. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), both senior members of the Appropriations Committee, with a combined House tenure of more than 60 years. Both have faced recent ethical questions about earmarks they put in spending bills benefiting lobbying firms they are close to - and both voted to pocket the extra $4,400 next year.

In January, when wrapping up left-over business for fiscal year 2007, House Democrats decreed that they wouldn't take a pay raise this year because the minimum wage hadn't increased since 1996. Well, with the wage hike included in the more than $120 billion supplemental funding bill that financed ongoing Iraq war operations, Pelosi and other leaders happily included the $4,400 COLA for members in this year's financial services appropriations measure.

But many of those incumbents from difficult districts who live in constant fear of a 30-second sound bite ad attacking them for anything, still opposed the pay raise. These nervous freshmen gave all sorts of explanations for why the money could be put to much better use -- war, poverty, natural disasters, etc.

Six freshmen Democrats voted for the pay raise, and not surprisingly they are from safe districts: Reps. Kathy Castor (Fla.), Hank Johnson (Ga.), Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), John Sarbanes (Md.), Albio Sires (N.J.) and Yvette Clarke (N.Y.).

There's still no word on how many of the 36 freshmen Democrats who opposed the pay raise will actually accept the extra $4,400 next year, but Capitol Briefing has taken notice of how often they like to do things as a group. They meet every Wednesday morning with Pelosi, formed their own political action committee together and often vote as a bloc, such as yesterday's pay-raise vote.

Here's hoping that all 36 of those freshmen Democrats who opposed the extra $4,400 will pool that extra pay, totaling $158,400, and collectively put the cash to some good purpose.

Capitol Briefing invites reader recommendations for what the freshmen could or should do with the $158,400 in the comments section below. Here are three possibilities:

• Turn the money over to the U.S. Treasury to pay down the federal debt;
• Buy some body armor for under-protected troops in Iraq;
• Give the money to a worthy non-profit like DC Central Kitchen, helping feed the homeless in the new members' adopted home town.

By Paul Kane  |  June 28, 2007; 12:07 PM ET
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