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House votes to raise the minimum wage for the first time in a decade

WASHINGTON—The House of Representatives voted Wednesday to raise the federal minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 by 2009, giving millions of poor Americans who work their best prospects in a decade to earn higher standards of living.

The legislation, which passed 315 to 116, doesn't include tax relief for small businesses, which President Bush says must be part of any increase he signs. Many Republicans say any such wage hike must be matched by incentives for small-business employers, particularly in the restaurant industry, which they say could lose the most when the minimum wage is raised.

Senate Democrats are expected to include some tax breaks in their version of the legislation in coming weeks and to urge House Democrats to go along, despite objections from liberal lawmakers and the AFL-CIO, in order to clear the Senate and win Bush's signature.

"It's very important we pass a minimum wage—it's also important that small businesses thrive in this country," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., one of the new crop of moderate-to-conservative Democrats who won election in November.

Americans working full-time jobs at the federal minimum wage would see their salaries rise under the proposed increase from about $11,000 a year to $15,000.

Democrats, back in control of Congress after a dozen years, see the minimum-wage increase as a key statement of their priorities. It's both a symbol to voters of the Democrats' ability to move legislation that Republicans bottled up for years and a reward to labor unions, a key constituency group for their party. It's also an idea overwhelmingly supported by Americans, including higher earners, polls show.

"This is a matter of fairness. This is a matter of human decency. This is a matter of human dignity," said Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a noted leader of the `60s civil rights movement. "It is time Congress actually reflects the will of the American people."

Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, chairman of the Republican Study Committee, said "lucky" workers would see their pay rise to $7.25 an hour, but he predicted, "Many more will have their hours cut, many will have their benefits cut, and many will lose their jobs."

Rep. Wally Herger, R-Calif., called the legislation "detrimental to small-business growth and job creation."

The last time Congress increased the minimum wage was in 1997, and the nation's unemployment rate fell in each of the next three years as the economy boomed.

In the 10 years since the minimum wage was raised, lawmakers increased their own pay by more than $31,000, to $165,200 last year. And more than half of the states have adopted their own minimum-wage increases.

The proposed increase would affect an estimated 5.6 million workers, largely those employed in service industries and likely to vote Democrat: younger Americans, Hispanics, blacks and women.

It also could pressure employers to raise the salaries of more than 7 million other workers earning slightly more than the minimum wage, economists predict.

Democrats noted that Wal-Mart's chairman came out recently in support of the increase, saying the discount chain's customers have too little income.

Anna Burger, secretary-treasurer of the SEIU, a union representing service workers, applauded the House vote, saying, "We are pleased to see the House is listening to working families and acting on the issues that matter most to them."

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said that if minimum-wage increases had kept up with the cost of living, the current minimum wage would be $9.05 an hour.


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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