WASHINGTON— Rep. Lee Terry won't be collecting a paycheck during the government shutdown after all.
The Omaha Republican announced Sunday that he was reversing course and asking to have his paychecks withheld until furloughed federal workers once again receive their checks.
Terry also issued a full apology for comments he made to The World-Herald last week that tore across the Internet and were picked up by national news organizations.
“The other day I made a statement that I would put my needs above others in crisis,” Terry said in his Sunday statement. “I'm ashamed of my comments. It was not leadership. It is not how I was raised. It is not the nature of my character. It is not what I want to teach my sons. I apologize for my hurtful remarks when so many others are feeling the pain of Washington's dysfunction.”
Terry was referring to his response when asked whether he would continue collecting pay during the shutdown. Terry told The World-Herald: “Dang straight.”
Asked about the more than 100 House and Senate members who had announced that they would either have their paychecks withheld during the shutdown or donate their pay to charity, Terry said, “Whatever gets them good press. That's all it's going to be. God bless them. But you know what? I've got a nice house and a kid in college, and I'll tell you we cannot handle it. Giving our paycheck away when you still worked and earned it? That's just not going to fly.”
Generally, federal employees are not paid during a shutdown. Those who are deemed essential and continue working automatically receive retroactive pay once the shutdown ends. Those who are sent home on furlough receive retroactive pay only if Congress acts to provide it.
The House voted Saturday to provide retroactive pay for the hundreds of thousands of federal workers on furlough. All House members from Nebraska and Iowa supported it.
Salaries for House and Senate members are guaranteed in the Constitution and continue during a shutdown because they are considered mandatory spending.
In fact, lawmakers can't simply refuse their salaries, which are $174,000 a year for rank-and-file members.
The government is required to pay lawmakers. They can ask that their salaries be withheld for a time, but ultimately the money will reach them.
Declining the checks until after the shutdown puts lawmakers in a situation similar to furloughed federal workers.
“I should and will stand in the shoes of the federal civilian employees who are furloughed,” Terry said. “We share the same responsibilities to pay our bills, and if they don't receive a paycheck and must take extraordinary efforts and sacrifice to pay them, then I should, too.”
House members are paid monthly, at the end of the month, so if the shutdown is resolved before Oct. 31, even those having their pay withheld won't actually miss any checks.
Terry wasn't alone in changing his position.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., also reversed course after previously saying he would keep collecting his checks and that “feel-good gestures” wouldn't solve the problem.
In a letter to be published Tuesday in The World-Herald's Public Pulse, Fortenberry wrote that he had changed his mind.
“There are a number of people who are hurting from the government shutdown, and there is a fairness argument to be made,” he wrote.
Fortenberry noted that he supported legislation to grant back pay to furloughed civilian workers.
“I will keep working toward constructive solutions to solve this problem,” he wrote. “We need the right type of policy, tax and spending reforms that are necessary to renew our nation.”
Another member of Nebraska's all-GOP congressional delegation, Rep. Adrian Smith, already had told The World-Herald that he was suspending his checks. But Sen. Deb Fischer described giving up pay during the shutdown as a “gimmick.” And a spokesman for Sen. Mike Johanns said the senator already donates to charity.
Plenty of Democrats have refused to suspend their pay, too, including Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., hasn't said she's giving up her checks and neither has President Barack Obama.
Although Terry's previous position was hardly unique, his choice of words made him the focus of Internet commentary.
Critics cited him as an example of Washington politicians out of touch with furloughed workers.
Jim Rogers, the executive director of the Nebraska Democratic Party, continued to criticize Terry on Sunday despite the apology. Rogers faulted him for helping to cause the shutdown.
“The true apology Terry should be giving is the fact he got us into this mess that hurts middle-class Nebraskans,” Rogers said in a statement.
In an opinion piece published in today's World-Herald, Terry reiterated his apology for last week's comments and talked about the tense atmosphere prevailing in Washington.
“I'm frustrated at the level of political gamesmanship,” he wrote. “Photo opportunities and gotcha politics are no way to govern a country.”
Terry touted his support for legislation passed last week ensuring that military personnel will continue to be paid during the shutdown. Many civilian defense employees were furloughed despite the legislation, which Terry described as an “illegal” move by the administration.
He welcomed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's recent announcement that he would recall most of those furloughed civilian workers.