Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid chastised Republican Sen. David Vitter Wednesday for trying to hold up a Cabinet secretary's pay increase over oil drilling concerns, saying the intervention amounts to "coercion."

Vitter, a pro-drilling senator from Louisiana, announced Monday that he would block a nearly $20,000 pay raise for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar until his department starts issuing more deepwater permits.

But Reid, who had been pushing for the pay increase, released a statement saying Salazar is well qualified and "deserves better than to be strong-armed" by Vitter.

"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, noting that he'd been working with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell on the issue. The headline on Reid's press release described Vitter's actions as "inappropriate coercion."

Reid was trying to round up support for a bill to increase Salazar's pay by $19,600 annually, to put his pay on par with that of other secretaries.

Salazar makes about $180,000. The reason he makes less than other secretaries is because a constitutional provision bars lawmakers from accepting an administration salary that they voted on. Since Salazar voted to raise secretary pay as a former Colorado senator, he had to accept a lower level of pay when he entered the Cabinet. But his hypothetical Senate term has ended, presumably freeing up Congress to vote him a better salary.

"The secretary of the interior's salary should be equal to that of the other Cabinet members. It is that simple, no more, no less," Interior Department spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said.

However, Vitter wants to see a major acceleration of drilling permits before that happens.
In a letter to Salazar, Vitter complained that while the department's Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement has issued 14 deepwater permits since the April 2010 BP disaster in the Gulf, "only one was for a truly new well." He described the rest as reissuances of older permits. Vitter said he will block the salary increase until the department is issuing new deepwater exploratory permits at a rate of six per month.

"The history behind your pay raise proposal and the insider support it may have here in Washington is irrelevant. Mr. Secretary, the fact is your polices and your department's mismanagement of permits is causing more Gulf energy workers literally to lose their jobs every day," he wrote.