The raise -- an annual cost of living adjustment, or COLA -- would bring U.S. District court judges up to par with members of Congress, who will receive an almost $5,000 boost on Jan. 1. District judges and lawmakers now earn $169,300 a year but are expected to be awarded a 2.8 percent raise next year, said Dick Carelli, a spokesman for the Administrative Office of the United States Courts.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., insisted that the judicial pay raise go into the automaker loan measure, which is the only item of business on Congress' lame-duck agenda.
Under ethics legislation enacted almost two decades ago, members of Congress get a cost of living raise automatically, but they have to vote to give judges an identical raise. Because the spending bill covering U.S. courts has not passed, the step is necessary if judges are going to get their COLA.
The Senate passed the judicial pay measure as a separate bill in November, but the House never acted. A House Democratic leadership aide said that while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., supports the pay raise, it was difficult for the House to hold a stand-alone vote in the midst of a recession to increase the pay for people making far more than most workers.
As a result, Reid has taken the unusual step of linking the obscure but important judicial pay issue to the unpopular auto bailout.
There is concern among many policymakers that judges are not paid enough relative to the importance of their offices, and in six of the past 13 years, judges have been denied their pay raise as lawmakers opted not to take their own COLA.
Even with the raise, judges earn far less than lawyers at big firms, just as members of Congress make less than many lobbyists.
If the pay measure fails to go through this year, judges are likely to get the increase as one of the first pieces of business next year.