Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) today slammed a Louisiana senator's decision to deny a pay raise for the Interior secretary unless his department approves more drilling permits.
Reid said it was wrong for Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) to thwart a $20,000 raise for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar that Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) had worked on for weeks.
The raise, which would have put Salazar's salary on par with the roughly $200,000 that other Cabinet secretaries make, is a moot point now that Salazar, who called Vitter's move "attempted coercion," asked Reid to abandon the proposal.
"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," Reid said in a statement this morning. "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."
Reid's statement comes a day after Salazar sent a letter to Senate leadership questioning the ethics of Vitter's move and asking that efforts to increase his salary be set aside.
"Our oversight and regulation of offshore energy production is -- and will continue to be -- guided by principles of integrity, the public interest and much-needed safety and environmental standards," Salazar told Reid and McConnell.
"A member of the Senate has taken the position, in writing, that his vote on the issue is dependent upon the outcomes of his attempted coercion of public acts here at the department," he added. "That position is wrong, and it must be made perfectly clear that his attempt cannot and will not affect the execution of the solemn legal responsibilities that the department undertakes on behalf of the American people."
Reid on Friday asked unanimous consent to boost Salazar's pay by $19,600, but was blocked by Vitter, who later demanded that Salazar begin issuing at least six new deepwater oil and gas permits a month in the Gulf in order for him to lift his opposition.
Vitter's move drew charges from some Democrats that he was illegally bribing Salazar in exchange for movement on permits in the Gulf, a charge Vitter's staff denied.
"I urge the Obama administration to prosecute," said Vitter spokesman Luke Bolar. "They'll make fools of themselves in court and make my boss a Louisiana folk hero at the same time."
Vitter said he was glad Salazar had asked Reid to abandon his proposed pay increase, which he called "truly offensive" to oil and gas workers in his state struggling to cope with longer permitting waits under Interior's enhanced safety rules.
"Now I hope he starts earning what he already makes and properly issues new permits for much needed drilling in the Gulf," Vitter said.
He added that Interior had permitted about six deepwater wells per month before the BP PLC oil spill a year ago. The agency has permitted 14 deepwater wells since February, when companies began demonstrating the ability to contain spilled oil and plug runaway wells.
Vitter noted that all but one of those permits had been issued before the BP disaster and later halted.
"Your current pace of permitting is abysmal by any reasonable measure whether based on the historical pace, based on the unemployment rate along the Gulf, based on $4-per-gallon gasoline, or based on the president's claims to support domestic energy production," Vitter said.
Rep. Jeff Landry (R), who represents a Gulf Coast district in Louisiana, yesterday said he backed Vitter's move and suggested Salazar should be fired for continuing to slow-walk permits in the Gulf.
"I support him 100 percent," Landry told Greenwire. "I think Salazar's salary should continue to decrease as people lose their jobs in Louisiana."
Interior halted dozens of permitted projects in the Gulf after the Deepwater Horizon incident to establish new safety standards it said were needed to prevent another blowout and contain oil in the event of a runaway well.
Vitter said that he will continue blocking the raise until Interior resumes issuing new permits at the same rate as before the Deepwater Horizon spill.
"It's just my way of keeping the 'boot on the neck' of Interior until they get the job done," he said, referring to a comment Salazar made after the spill in pledging to keep pressure on BP. "Surely the secretary can appreciate that approach."
Salazar is paid less than other secretaries because of a provision in the U.S. Constitution known as the Emolument Clause, which bars senators from becoming the recipients of pay raises they supported as lawmakers. Salazar's term as senator from Colorado would have ended this January, prompting Reid to ask for his pay to increase.