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Efforts to raise minimum wage fail, but Congress girds for debate

WASHINGTON—The Senate on Monday defeated two proposals to raise the minimum wage, in a test of muscle over what's expected to be a yearlong struggle to increase an income floor that's gone unchanged for nine years.

A Democratic proposal to raise the rate from $5.15 to $7.25 over three years failed 49-46 in the Senate Monday. A Republican proposal to increase it to $6.25 in two years fared even worse, losing 61-38.

The proposals came as amendments to legislation that would make it harder for individuals to file bankruptcy, a priority bill with financial institutions and credit card companies. In neither case did sponsors of the measures expect to win, because leaders of both parties had set a 60-vote super majority threshold for passage. That unusual arrangement allowed both sides to get senators' votes on the record but protected the underlying bankruptcy bill against delaying ploys.

The debate pitted a proposal by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to raise the minimum wage by $2.10 against an amendment by Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., that would raise it by $1.10. Santorum's proposal also would have exempted businesses with revenues of less than $1 million. The current exemption level is $500,000.

Santorum also would have permitted workers and their employers to negotiate compensatory time over a two-week, 80-hour period rather than the current 40-hour workweek. Critics said that would deny hourly workers overtime pay.

"Americans are working harder than any other industrial nation in the world," Kennedy said. "They are producing more but making less."

But Santorum argued that Kennedy's plan would increase the minimum wage by 41 percent—a rate he said would put an onerous burden on employers and possibly cause inflation to skyrocket.

The National Retail Federation lobbied vigorously against Kennedy's amendment. The organization has pushed for a decade to get bankruptcy laws overhauled, only to see efforts vanish repeatedly at the last minute to amendments that kill the larger effort.

Indeed, Santorum discouraged senators from voting for either proposal, indicating that an upcoming effort to update welfare laws would be a better vehicle for the minimum wage.

"I would hope candidly that we didn't pass either of these at this time," he said.

Labor unions lobbied on behalf of the Kennedy amendment, hoping it would set a strong foundation for the next time the Senate confronts the issue. The Kennedy amendment won support from every Democrat present as well as votes from four Republicans—Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Michael DeWine of Ohio, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Pete Domenici of New Mexico.

"After nine years of going without an increase, Republicans are feeling the heat," said William Samuel, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO. "This is something people are increasingly bringing up in town hall meetings."

Katherine Lugar, a lobbyist for the retail federation, predicted the minimum-wage debate would continue at least into next year. "This issue is going to take a lot of twists and turns," she said. "It tends to get resolved in even-numbered years" when members of Congress face re-election.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Kevin Hall contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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