WASHINGTON (CNN) -
Embattled Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Harvey Pitt pitched Congress for a raise and cabinet-level status for the agency, in spite of calls for him to quit, an SEC official told CNN Wednesday.
Pitt made his request as lawmakers consider a bill on corporate responsibility in the wake of recent high-profile accounting scandals at Enron, WorldCom, Xerox and others.
The proposed promotion would place Pitt on a par with other cabinet officials, such as the secretary of state and the attorney general. He would outrank the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, directors of the environmental protection agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the New York Times reported Wednesday.
Outside members of the cabinet, only Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart have the elevated designation.
A Democratic congressional aide said the move shows just how "out of touch this guy is," suggesting Pitt is more concerned with "covering his own backside" than stepping up enforcement.
Some Democrats, as well as Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, have called for Pitt to resign.
House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., who said he was not aware of the proposal, made it clear he believes it is a non-starter.
"What we're trying to do is to...first of all not to elevate any one person," Hastert told reporters after a congressional breakfast with President Bush. "When you put the House bill and the Senate bill [on corporate responsibility] together...I think we'll have a good product. We're not really focusing on who's going to be the kingpin of where yet."
Hastert said he wanted to review Pitt's proposal, even though, "I think it is probably not the best time in the world."
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle was even more critical of Pitt.
"This is further proof and a clear illustration of why it is many of us feel the time has come for a change in that position," Daschle said. "I am surprised and saddened by the insensitivity of Mr. Pitt."
Along with the elevation in status, Pitt would receive a raise to $166,700 from $138,200 and the salaries of the four other commissioners at the agency would increase to $150,000 from $130,000. All other SEC employees would remain at their current pay levels, according to the Times.
However, the SEC official told CNN that there was never any discussion about pay.
"That was not the point of it," the official said. "The chairman would gladly forgo any pay...The pay was never the issue."
The White House, which was not made aware of Pitt's proposal, called it a distraction from the real work of curbing abuses.
"Our focus is on ensuring the SEC has the resources it needs...so that it can go after corporate corruption and fix the system so that abuses do not occur in the future," Claire Buchan, the White House deputy press secretary, told CNN. "We view this as something that can be viewed as a distraction from those important goals."
Pitt's proposal was part of a list of suggestions the SEC submitted at the request of both the House and Senate committees hashing out a final form for the corporate responsibility bill, the SEC official said. Legislators hope to have it on the president's desk before the August congressional recess.
In addition to cabinet-level status for the agency and a raise for the chairman, the SEC's suggestions included working more closely with the Justice Department on investigations and making it easier for the SEC to hire accountants and other new staffers.
The SEC official told CNN that the issue of elevating the agency's status on a par with the Federal Reserve Board has been a long-standing one that first came before any of the recent corporate accounting scandals.
The official also said the idea was not criticized after being sent up to Capitol Hill.
Asked about Democratic criticism of the move and suggestions that Pitt is trying to protect his reputation, the official said: "This has nothing to do with the chairman.... He wants the agency to be stronger and better than ever when he leaves."