Legislation to increase the federal minimum wage appears to be in trouble this week as Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee squabble over the size of any increase and efforts by organized labor to tie future increases to inflation.
The minimum wage bill, sponsored by Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Calif.), is scheduled for a vote Thursday by the House subcommittee on labor standards. But subcommittee Democrats so far are unwilling to go along with Hawkins' proposal to raise the minimum from $3.35 to $4.65 an hour over the next three years and then index future increases to account for inflation.
A similar bill has been introduced in the Senate by Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources.
The minimum wage bill is one of the biggest items on organized labor's legislative agenda this year.
Democrats on the House subcommittee, according to committee sources, are opposed to indexation and want to either lower the top rate closer to the $4-an-hour level or stretch out the time period to reach $4.65 an hour.
Union lobbyists, in an effort to salvage as much of the Hawkins bill as possible, decided early last week to abandon indexation in the subcommittee if necessary to preserve the $4.65 wage level proposal. "We always viewed it as a bargaining chip," one union lobbyist said last week.
Hawkins, in what a committee aide described as an effort to "get the subcommittee in line" before the Thursday markup session, has called a caucus meeting of all committee Democrats for Wednesday. It is unclear, however, if Hawkins has enough votes among Democrats on the full committee to carry the bill. Subcommittee Republicans, in the meantime, have called a caucus meeting Tuesday to plan their strategy.
"Right now it's rough -- there isn't any consensus," a labor lobbyist said. "It's very messy." He said there has been so much infighting among the Democrats that labor hasn't even begun to square off against the business community.
The biggest business opposition comes from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association. Neither group wants any increase in the minimum wage.
Further complicating the issue, according to lobbyists and congressional aides, is subcommittee Chairman Austin J. Murphy (D-Pa.). Sources said last week that Murphy is bitter that labor and other Democratic allies did not lobby to fight his Dec. 19 sanction by the House for allowing someone else to cast his vote on the House floor.
Murphy, according to committee officials and union lobbyists, does not want future increases in the minimum wage tied to increases in inflation. Murphy also is reported to be considering an increase in the "tip credit" for restaurant workers. The industry wants to be able to count a waiter's tips as a credit toward half the minimum wage requirement. Labor and Hawkins are both opposed.
Like Murphy, Hawkins appears willing to give up indexing, but he does not want to do it until the bill reaches the House floor, an aide said. "If we weaken it in the subcommittee, it will only get weaker as it moves to the floor," he said. "The sharks will begin circling."
The aide said he did not think Hawkins was prepared to let the subcommittee drop indexing. He said if Hawkins could not get enough support for his bill in subcommittee, he might introduce a new bill and take it directly to the full committee for a vote.
Committee officials said they are confident the House will increase the minimum wage this year and that the wage level will be raised above $4 an hour.