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Congressional pay, health care benefits under scrutiny

A protester’s mouth was covered with a dollar bill during a demonstration in front of the US Capitol.

AFP/Getty Images

A protester’s mouth was covered with a dollar bill during a demonstration in front of the US Capitol.

WASHINGTON — Paychecks for lawmakers, which continue to flow amid the government shutdown, have been the subject of political criticism and mockery all week. Congressional health plans are being cast as “gold-plated” benefits, a symbol of everything wrong with “Obamacare.”

Massachusetts lawmakers, like their colleagues from around the country, are caught up in the controversy over their own compensation during the government closure, which has resulted in furloughs, without pay, for 800,000 federal employees.

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The circumstances are especially awkward, since the widespread hardship is the direct result of political failures by officials who are still receiving a salary.

Sensitive to appearances, four of the 10-member, all-Democrat Massachusetts House and Senate delegation said they are either donating their congressional salaries earned during the shutdown or refusing their paychecks. Members make $174,000 a year, or $3,346 a week, before taxes.

Public pressure has been building for lawmakers to surrender their pay as long as the government is closed. Petitions by MoveOn.org and other groups have drawn hundreds of thousands of signatures.

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward J. Markey said they would donate their salaries, as did Representative Niki Tsongas. Representative John F. Tierney said he will not take a salary either, but is weighing whether to donate it or return his paycheck to the Treasury at the end of the month. Representative James P. McGovern said he may donate his salary to the Worcester County Food Bank and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

“But these symbolic gestures don’t solve the problem,” McGovern said. “If the government is still shut down, it doesn’t matter who I donate to.”

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Historically, essential staff who work through government shutdowns have been paid retroactively when a continuing resolution is passed. This is not guaranteed for furloughed employees.

“I am standing in solidarity with my hard-working staff,” Tierney posted on Facebook about his decision not to get paid. “As long as they are not being paid, I will not take a paycheck.”

The offices of Representatives Joseph P. Kennedy III and Stephen F. Lynch said they had no plans to donate their paychecks. Representatives Michael J. Capuano and Richard E. Neal said they would decide what to do with their paychecks once they receive the money on Nov. 1. Representative William R. Keating did not respond to repeated questions about his plans.

The issue of pay is contributing to a sense of confusion in the Capitol, as lawmakers adopt widely different approaches to the politically sensitive subject, as well as whom they have decided to send home during the shutdown. The decision of whether to furlough congressional staff was left to each member’s discretion.

Warren and Markey, as well as Tierney, released a large portion of their staffs, while Kennedy furloughed one person who is already on vacation. Representatives Tsongas, Capuano, McGovern, Neal, and Lynch said they would retain all staff.

Warren was the only member from Massachusetts whose office stopped answering phones calls. Other members of the delegation said they would be sure to staff the phone for what they said has been a flood of constituent calls.

The debate over lawmakers’ health care benefits has been raging since the coverage expansion was passed in 2010. The law requires that members of Congress and their staffs sign up for coverage on the insurance marketplaces that opened Tuesday, kicking them off the federal health benefits system beginning 2014.

That has generated a secondary storm of controversy, over whether the members and their staff should continue receiving a federal employer contribution towards their premiums.

Federal rules, finalized this week, allow the government contributions to continue if members enroll in certain health plans offered through the marketplace designed for small businesses in the District of Columbia. The subsidy — worth up to $11,600 a year — covers about 75 percent of total premium costs.

House Republicans, seeking to score political points against the health care law and embarrass Democrats, tried on Monday to strip away that employer contribution, which they characterized as a perk.

“Americans shouldn’t suffer under Obamacare” while “Congress gets special deals and exemptions,” read an e-mail from the National Republican Congressional Committee that targeted Democrats, who opposed the GOP plan.

All week, Republicans have seized upon the government health subsidy issue in their ongoing quest to gut Obama’s health law.

“The Senate had a simple choice: keep the government open or keep their special Obamacare exemption. And instead, they put their personal financial interest over the national interest,” said Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican.

Democrats have dismissed the GOP attacks.

“It's obscene,” said Capuano. “My constituents aren’t stupid enough to listen to these half-baked people.”

McGovern called the outcry a “political stunt.”

“It’s a distortion to say that members of Congress are getting some special treatment,” McGovern said. “We’re getting what most people who get employer-based health insurance get.”

Tsongas emphasized that all federal workers, not just those in Congress, receive the same employer health contributions. The subsidies are particularly meaningful for lower-paid staff members making $25,000 a year, she said. “It’s unfair to use Congress and our staff as a scapegoat as they try to defund Obamacare,” Tsongas said.

The health insurance marketplaces — online portals through which signing up for health insurance is supposed to be as easy as buying a plane ticket — are meant for people whose employers do not offer coverage, those who are currently uninsured, and small businesses.

Congressional members and their staffs are the only group in the country working for a large employer who must obtain insurance through the marketplace, because of an amendment to the 2010 health law that was pushed by Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican. Even Grassley has said he intended for the government contributions to apply towards purchasing coverage in the marketplace.

In another wrinkle, many Democrats have not even begun signing up for healthcare on the online marketplace, even though they championed the law. All members of Congress received a memo this week instructing them not to enroll in the marketplaces until mid-November, when their open enrollment period begins.

But many Republicans, eager to capitalize politically on technical glitches, began trying to sign up immediately.

Representative Tim Huelskamp, a Kansas Republican, said he waited more than 12 hours on Tuesday to enroll in “Obamacare” because the system kept crashing.

“Obamacare has been an absolute failure,” Huelskamp said. He blamed the shutdown on Democrats who voted to preserve “their own gold-crusted healthcare plan.”

Markey said that it is time for Republicans to “stop spreading misinformation about non-existent exemptions and work to implement the law.”

Tracy Jan can be reached at tjan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeTracyJan. Globe correspondent Mattias Gugel contributed to this report.

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