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Vitter blocks Salazar's scheduled pay increase

President Obama's Interior secretary is due for a raise, but Louisiana GOP Sen. David Vitter threatened to block that pay increase unless the Interior Department opens more access to Gulf drilling. Democrats say that Vitter's opposition amounts to coercion.

This morning, aides to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar say he asked the Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to withdraw any effort to address Salazar's planned salary increase over a rare and personal dispute launched by Vitter. Salazar wrote to Reid, that Vitter's demand is "wrong" and called it "attempted coercion."

Vitter is demanding Salazar take action to open more drilling permits in the Gulf of Mexico, an issue important in his home state after last year's spill. In a letter, Vitter threatened to use a procedural move that would allow him to block Salazar's pay adjustment.

Vitter wrote, "[W]hen the rate of permits issued for new deepwater exploratory wells reaches pre-moratorium levels (so 6 per month), I will end my efforts to block your salary increase."
Salazar is entitled to a raise of $19,600, elevating his salary to that of other cabinet posts now that his original Senate term has expired. In long-standing rules, senators appointed to executive branch jobs cannot be paid at the higher rate until their elected terms expire. Secretary Clinton also is under this rule until 2012.

Salazar aides say the secretary had not requested the salary raise himself, and does not want the salary related vote to occur because of Vitter's action. 

Vitter's office says he will not withdraw his objection to the raise at this time and Vitter says in a written statement, "It's just my way of keeping the 'boot on the neck" of Interior until they get job the done. Surely, the secretary can appreciate that approach." That is a reference to Salazar's use of the boot-on-the-neck phrase during oil spill hearings last year.

Today Vitter responded, "I'm glad the secretary has dropped his push for a pay raise; it was truly offensive to Gulf energy workers who are struggling under his policies. Now I hope he starts earning what he already makes and properly issues new permits for much needed drilling in the Gulf."

Aides say Salazar is in Colorado today. Reid's office says he plans to work with Republicans to get Vitter to drop his opposition. 

Senate Majority Leader Reid just issued this statement:

"I have worked with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on this issue for weeks and it is wrong for Sen. Vitter to try to get something in return for moving forward on a matter that the Senate has considered routine for more than a century."Ken Salazar is extremely well-qualified, hard-working cabinet secretary, and deserves better than to be strong armed while trying to do an important job for the American people."