Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Democrats push hard for increase in minimum wage

Democrats push hard for increase in minimum wage
By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrats ratcheted up their election-year push for an increase in the federal minimum wage on Tuesday by promising to block a congressional pay hike unless some of the lowest-paid hourly workers get their first raise in nearly a decade.

"Congress is going to have earn its raise by putting American workers first: A raise for workers before a raise for Congress," said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

Reid refused to spell out exactly how he will block a $3,300 pay raise scheduled for January 1 for members of Congress, who currently earn $165,200 annually. He said with 40 Senate Democrats backing the maneuver, "We can stop anything they (Republicans) try to do with a congressional pay raise."

Democrats in the House and Senate want the $5.15-per-hour federal minimum wage, in place since 1997, to rise in 70-cent increments to $7.25 by January 1, 2009. Workers earning the current minimum wage would need to work 40 hours a week for 16 weeks to earn the $3,300 pay raise expected for Congress.

In arguing for the minimum-wage increase, Democrats are emphasizing that salaries for members of Congress have risen $31,600 during the time the minimum wage has been frozen.

They complain that rising costs for gasoline, utilities, education and food have taken a chunk out of minimum-wage paychecks, which sometimes have to support entire families.

Republicans in Congress have blocked numerous attempts to raise the minimum wage, paid to about 7 million workers, saying it would backfire by causing small businesses to hire fewer entry-level employees.


But with Republican control of the House and Senate uncertain after the November congressional elections, some moderate Republicans have been joining with Democrats to support a minimum-wage increase.

"I think it's the right thing to do. It seems like if I can defend and be sincere about tax cuts, some to the wealthiest, if I can do that," then a minimum wage increase is also in order, Rep. Mike Simpson, an Idaho Republican, said in a recent interview with Reuters.

House Majority Leader John Boehner, an Ohio Republican who opposes an increase in the minimum wage, on Tuesday told reporters, "We may have to deal with it."

But not just yet. A move by House Democrats to attach the minimum wage to an unrelated spending bill now being debated in the House of Representatives was blocked.

Bill Samuels, legislative director for the AFL-CIO labor union, said Boehner was facing "growing pressure" from moderate Republicans for a minimum wage vote. He compared the situation to 1996, also an election year, when House Republican leaders initially vowed to block a raise, only to see it enacted later in the year.

Republican leaders, Samuels said, "have to figure out a way to relieve the pressure" for a vote. He said they are likely to find an avenue next month, when those leaders want to pass a fiscal 2007 spending bill for labor programs that has a minimum wage amendment attached to it.

A majority of senators are on record in favor of increasing the minimum wage, which currently brings a salary of $10,700 a year for full-time workers, about $6,000 below the poverty line for a family of three.

Last week, in a test vote, 52 senators supported the 40 percent increase Democrats are seeking.