Minimum-Wage Increase Fails

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Senate yesterday rejected a Democratic plan to boost the minimum wage for the first time in nearly a decade, but Democrats vowed to campaign on the issue this fall to highlight their differences with the Republican majority.

The measure, offered as an amendment to an unrelated defense bill by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), would have raised the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour from the current $5.15, where it has remained for nine years. The 52 to 46 vote was eight short of the 60 required to meet a procedural requirement and pass the measure.

"We have had debates on gay marriage, we have debates on flag burning, and we have debates on estate tax," Kennedy said. "We're saying that it's time we take action to increase the minimum wage."

Democrats noted that the minimum wage has not been adjusted for inflation in nine years, despite soaring gasoline and energy prices and rising housing costs. Workers receiving the current minimum wage earn only $10,700 a year, "almost $6,000 below the poverty line for a family of three," Kennedy said.

Republicans argued that an increase in the minimum wage would discourage employers from hiring workers and would hinder people in the early stages of their careers from gaining skills and advancing. Yet eight Republicans joined 43 Democrats and one independent in supporting the Kennedy measure -- double the GOP support a similar measure garnered last year.

The Senate has rejected 11 attempts to raise the minimum wage since 1998, according to a legislative history compiled by Democrats. House Republican leaders indicated this week that they would not allow a vote on the issue this year.

Regardless of what Congress does on the minimum wage this year, Democrats think they have a strong issue to run on as they try to regain control of the House and Senate.

In campaigns across the country, Democratic House and Senate candidates are contrasting the stagnant pay for the country's lowest-paid workers with the regular cost-of-living pay raises lawmakers have granted themselves in recent years.

Just last week, the House rejected an effort to block a $3,300 annual increase in the base salary for a member of Congress. If the raise goes through, rank-and-file members will earn $168,500 -- a $31,600 increase since the last minimum-wage increase was enacted in 1997.

The Senate yesterday also rejected 53 to 45 a Republican alternative to the Kennedy provision that would have raised the minimum wage by $1.10. The GOP package included numerous sweeteners for small businesses to offset higher employment costs.

"If we do not balance a minimum-wage increase with economic relief for the small businesses, we will stifle job creation and shut the employment door on the very individuals we are trying to help," said Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), author of the GOP alternative.

For Democrats and Republicans alike, the minimum wage is a symbol of the two parties' different ideologies and governing priorities. Unlike the war in Iraq and high gas prices, Congress can affect the minimum wage at will.

Polls have shown that the public overwhelmingly supports a minimum-wage increase. Despite the lack of action at the federal level, 21 states plus the District of Columbia have raised the wage rate for their residents, and six more states could follow in November, through ballot initiatives. Only two states, Oregon and Washington, have minimum wages of $7.25 or more.

House Republican leaders have so far resisted allowing a floor vote on a minimum-wage increase for fear that Northeastern and Midwestern Republicans who represent pro-union districts would team up with Democrats to pass it.

Last week, seven Republicans joined Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee to add a $2.10-per-hour minimum-wage increase to the fiscal 2007 spending bill that would fund the Labor, Health, and Education departments. That bill has stalled. But when committee Democrats tried the same move this week during consideration of a different spending bill, their GOP allies either switched their votes or were absent.

Asked this week whether he would allow a minimum-wage increase to come to the floor, House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) responded, "Probably not."

But some GOP lawmakers think election-year pressures will result in a House vote -- which in turn would renew pressure on the Senate when Democrats revive the issue, as they intend to this fall.

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who supports an increase, said he thought a House vote was inevitable. Blocking it in a volatile political environment would look "pretty silly," LaHood said, adding, "Why not be the party that has a little bit of heart and cares about ordinary people?"

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