Senate leaders agreed yesterday to seek votes next week on bills to increase the minimum wage and liberalize trade with African and Caribbean countries, untangling a partisan knot that had tied up action on all but budgetary issues for the rest of the year.
The breakthrough came after Democrats, angry over what they regarded as Republicans' high-handed refusal to allow votes on the minimum wage and other Democratic priorities, held together and blocked action on the trade measure in hopes of forcing debate and votes on these proposals.
Republican leaders fell 15 votes short of the 60 needed to move ahead with the trade bill, enough to doom the measure unless Democrats could be persuaded to drop their party-line opposition to it.
Moments after the vote, Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) told reporters he hoped to revive the trade bill by working out an agreement by Monday with Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) to consider three proposals from each party--including the Democrats' minimum wage increase--in connection with a pending bill to overhaul bankruptcy laws.
One of the Republicans' proposals would include tax cuts and other breaks aimed at helping small businesses pay for an increase in the wage floor for their workers.
Another vote on the trade bill would be scheduled for Tuesday on the assumption that most Democrats would vote to move ahead with the legislation, which has broad support in both parties and the strong backing of President Clinton, if they get the up-or-down votes they want on domestic matters.
"We are still very hopeful that we can find a way to get this job [the trade bill] done," Lott told the Senate. Democrats also expressed cautious optimism about prospects for a deal but said it could still unravel.
The Democrats' minimum wage proposal, sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), would raise the wage floor by $1 over two years, to $6.15 an hour. Kennedy has said he is on the verge of having enough Republican support to pass the measure, although its fate as part of the controversial bankruptcy measure is unclear.
House Republican leaders also agreed yesterday to bring up a minimum wage and tax cut package next week, including a $1 hourly wage increase over three years and a variety of business tax breaks, such as phasing out the inheritance tax and increasing health care cost tax deductions for the self-employed. A coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans is planning to offer an alternative, including a larger wage increase and smaller tax breaks.
Congress last approved a minimum wage increase in 1996, raising it by 90 cents in two steps to reach $5.15 an hour in 1997.
The trade bill would reduce and in most cases eliminate tariffs and quotas on products from sub-Saharan Africa. It would also extend to Caribbean and Central American countries benefits similar to those extended to Mexico under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Opposition has come mostly from senators from textile-producing states, who fear loss of jobs from inexpensive imports. In yesterday's vote, six Republicans--mostly from southern and New England textile states--joined Democrats in voting against proceeding with the bill.
The House has twice approved the African trade measure, but it has become entangled in unrelated issues in the Senate. It is the only major trade bill before Congress this year and, if approved, would be the first to be enacted since 1994, when Congress authorized the United States to join the World Trade Organization.
Staff writer Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.