WASHINGTON—The House of Representatives headed Friday evening toward a late-night vote to raise the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 an hour by June 1, 2009, phased in over three years. It seemed likely to pass the House but faced an uncertain fate in the Senate.
Republicans typically echo objections from business advocates that raising the minimum wage forces businesses to hire fewer employees. Democrats typically support raising the minimum wage as a matter of fairness, arguing that the working poor deserve a wage high enough to keep up with the cost of living.
But this House vote was different, because Republican leaders attached the minimum-wage hike to legislation extending several tax cuts and sharply scaling back a tax on estate inheritances for the wealthiest Americans. Republicans detest the estate tax and deride it as the "death tax."
The Senate couldn't reach agreement on repealing the estate tax earlier this year. Because the minimum-wage boost is attached to a measure the Senate couldn't accept, Democrats charged that the House bill was a political stunt.
With a majority of House Republicans opposing the minimum wage hike on principle, Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, had planned to block the issue from coming to a vote. But about 50 moderate Republicans signed a letter this week asking to be allowed to record a vote on an increase before the August recess, so Boehner relented.
Democrats said the House vote was designed to give moderate Republican lawmakers facing tight races for re-election in November the political cover of having voted to raise the minimum wage, secure in the knowledge that the Senate would never let it become law.
"It's so cynical on the part of Republicans because they know that the minimum wage with these poison pills is dead on arrival in the United States Senate," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
But Republicans insisted that the legislation was a serious effort to forge a political consensus that could pass Congress and said that the Senate might well pass the package and send it to President Bush. "We'll have to wait first and see," said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"It's the opposite of trying to kill minimum wage," said a Senate Republican leadership aide speaking on condition of anonymity because congressional aides are loath to steal the spotlight from lawmakers. "It's the true compromise—something Democrats want, something Republicans want, something the House wants, something the Senate wants. That's the art of the deal around this place."
Senators expect to vote on the measure next week before leaving town for a month. The House leaves this weekend.
If the minimum wage increase is enacted, it would be the first boost in nearly a decade. Congress passed the last increase in 1996, and it went into effect in 1997. Since then, lawmakers have approved cost-of-living increases for themselves to the tune of $32,000, boosting members' annual salaries to about $165,000.
Americans overwhelmingly tell pollsters that they support raising the minimum wage. The Pew Research Center in April reported that 83 percent favor a $2-per-hour increase, to $7.15.
Fewer than half the states mandate minimum wages higher than the federal government's, but several state legislatures passed increases this year, and a half-dozen states have proposals on the ballot.
In addition, Chicago's city council this week passed an attention-getting ordinance requiring "big box" retailers such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot to pay a minimum wage of $10 per hour by 2010, along with at least $3 per hour worth of benefits.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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