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Obama Under Scrutiny For Paid Speeches

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Yes, the partisan divide on Capitol Hill has been in full Technicolor display, but NPR's Vanessa Romo reports some members of Congress have found common ground over one issue - President Obama's paychecks.

VANESSA ROMO, BYLINE: Ex-presidents start cashing in almost immediately after leaving office. They rake in millions in book sales and private appearances. Bill Clinton can command up to half a million dollars for a speech, while President Ronald Reagan earned $2 million for two 20-minute speeches in 1989. So it makes sense that three months out of office, bazillionaires (ph) and banks are clamoring to pay top dollar to hear from former President Obama.

Since stepping out of the Oval Office and into regular-shaped rooms, he's inked a $60 million book deal and two $400,000 speaking fees. Republicans and Democrats are really upset by that, especially a check from Cantor Fitzgerald, an investment firm. I'll just let Bernie Sanders say it for the Democrats.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BERNIE SANDERS: It just does not look good.

ROMO: Because it undermines Democrats' credibility when they're pushing for more stringent regulations on Wall Street. Republicans argue that the problem with the speaking fees is that ex-presidents are already getting a presidential pension. In other words, they're double-dipping. Congressman Jason Chaffetz got pretty close to changing that law. A bill he wrote landed on Obama's desk last year, but it was vetoed. Obama said he'd reconsider it if Congress tweaked it.

Now Chaffetz says he's bringing it back, and here's how it would work. The pension would be reduced, dollar for dollar, if a president's outside income exceeds $400,000. So why do presidents get a pension anyway? It goes back to 1958 and Harry Truman, who refused to capitalize on the office. The story is that he was on the brink of financial ruin, and Congress wanted to spare the country the humiliation of having a president become a hobo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLIFTON TRUMAN DANIEL: My grandparents lived in a very big, grand Victorian house. They had Secret Service protection. But we never - I never had the impression that they were filthy rich or hurting, one way or the other. They - you know, they were just Gammy and Grandpa.

ROMO: That's Clifton Truman Daniels (ph), Truman's eldest grandson. Anyway, Truman got the pension and so did Herbert Hoover, a millionaire many times over. If the Chaffetz bill passes this time around, it'll significantly reduce the payout to all five living presidents and their staffs. But there's another debate going on in social media and popular culture - that the criticism of Obama is really about his race. Here's "The Daily Show's" Trevor Noah.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

TREVOR NOAH: So the first black president must also be the first one to not take money afterwards? No, no, no, no, no, no, no, my friend.

ROMO: So far, Obama has been silent about the size of the checks and concerns that he's being singled out because he's the first black president. But he and Michelle did make some free speech appearances last week, and they announced they're personally donating $2 million for a youth work program in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARACK OBAMA: I think my mother-in-law just said, what?

(LAUGHTER)

ROMO: Vanessa Romo, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.