WASHINGTON—A plan to raise the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 was scuttled Thursday when Senate Democrats blocked a Republican bid that tied the increase to tax breaks for heirs of multimillion-dollar estates.
Republican leaders tried to bring the combination wage and tax bill to a final vote hours before the Senate's scheduled adjournment for a month-long recess but fell short of a 60-vote supermajority needed to end debate.
The 56 to 42 vote reflected the opposition of all but four Democrats. Two Republicans crossed party lines to block the legislation. The House of Representatives passed the combination bill last week.
"What's going on is block and blame," said Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., of the Democrats. "They want to say this is a do-nothing Congress."
Democrats accused Republican leaders, who traditionally have opposed minimum wage increases, of trying to confuse voters in a crucial election year.
"It didn't take them long to come around to this position," Senate Democratic Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois railed, speaking of the minimum wage provision. "Only nine years, where they have resisted us every single attempt we've made. And what led to this deathbed conversion? Could it be the looming election?"
Democrats' move Thursday may limit the legislative accomplishments that Republicans can tout as they face voters dissatisfied with the war in Iraq and high gas prices. It also preserves a potentially important turnout tool for Democrats as they try to retake control of Congress in November: the opportunity to argue that the minimum wage, which was last raised in 1996, won't increase as long as Republicans are in charge.
Polls show about 8 in 10 Americans support a minimum wage increase. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said earlier this week that this would be the only consideration of a minimum wage increase this year.
The blocked vote means there will be no immediate relief for an estimated 6 million Americans who, if working 40-hour weeks, would earn less than $11,000 a year.
Democrats argued that the estate tax reduction that the Republicans tied to the wage increase would probably be offset by social services cuts, hurting low-wage workers. The provision was estimated to yield $1.4 million in savings to each of about 8,000 Americans a year who now pay what Republicans call a "death tax" when they inherit family farms or businesses or other generational wealth.
Democrats also charged the legislation could reduce wage protections in several states for workers who earn tips, despite assurances from some Republicans that they wouldn't let that happen.
Republicans said that the Democrats' actions Thursday could jeopardize some of their own incumbents in contested elections if voters aren't moved by the subtleties of why they voted the way they did.
After Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who's locked in a serious general election contest, said she would join the filibuster, the spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee released this statement: "When given a chance to deliver for the people of Washington state, Cantwell instead folds like a cheap tent and bows to her party leadership's wishes. She should look no further than this vote when given her pink slip in November."
Republicans in swing states who supported raising the minimum wage may be able to deflect Democrats' efforts to criticize them personally. Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, whose race is considered competitive, said that regardless of the outcome of Thursday's vote, raising the minimum wage was something "which I have been for."
Said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.: "We're trying to get the priorities of both sides together in a bill to move this country forward in a way that both sides can walk away and say, `You know what? I didn't get everything I wanted, but we made progress.'"
GOP leaders had packed the bill with a number of incentives to pressure key Democrats to support it. That included breaks for the timber industry in Washington state and miners in West Virginia, and bonds for Arkansas, as well as a number of nationally popular tax credits for college tuition, sales tax deductibility and research and development.
It wasn't enough.
"We bet on the wrong horse," said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who had cautioned his colleagues against the strategy of combining the disparate legislation into what leaders dubbed the "trifecta."
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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