Thursday, June 22, 2006

Republicans OK with giving themselves raises, but not with increasing the minimum wage

Senate defeats Democrats' minimum wage increase
By Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Wednesday defeated a proposal pushed by Democrats that would have given some of the lowest-paid hourly workers a boost in their wages for the first time in nearly a decade.

A majority of the Senate, 52 senators, voted in favor of incrementally raising the federal minimum wage -- unchanged since 1997 -- 40 percent from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 by January 1, 2009.

But the measure needed 60 votes to win under a procedural agreement worked out earlier.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, unsuccessfully tried to attach the proposal to a defense authorization bill that is expected to be passed by the Senate in coming days.

Kennedy acknowledged to reporters that it will be "pretty difficult" to win a minimum wage increase this year. He said the pay raise for about 7 million workers and their families would be a top priority if Democrats win control of the Senate in November's elections.

Democrats must pick up six seats from Republicans to reclaim the chamber.

Trying to rebut Republicans' arguments that raising the minimum wage would largely help teenagers working part-time jobs while being supported by their parents, Kennedy focused on teaching assistants, nursing home aides and office building maintenance workers who work full time at wages that earn them less than $11,000 annually, well below the poverty line.

Kennedy also chastised Republican leaders for blocking a minimum wage increase while pursuing repeal of the estate tax, which mostly helps the wealthy, and taking "plenty of time to debate flag burning. I don't know the last time a flag was burned in my state of Massachusetts," Kennedy said.


Republicans countered that raising the minimum wage would end up backfiring by forcing small businesses to hire fewer workers.

The Senate also defeated a Republican-backed amendment to raise the minimum wage in two steps to $6.25. That measure also would have changed some work rules, drawing Democratic opposition.

Only 45 senators supported that plan by Republican Michael Enzi of Wyoming, chairman of a Senate labor committee.

His amendment had a minimum wage increase, but Enzi said that Congress instead should focus on ways to lower high-school dropout rates and get more job training to low-skilled workers.

With congressional elections less than five months away, Democratic candidates are likely to highlight the minimum wage and contrast it to House of Representatives and Senate members' salaries, which have risen by nearly $35,000 since 1997.

House Democrats, like their Senate counterparts, are pushing a $2.10-per-hour minimum wage increase. Last week, the House Appropriations Committee voted to include the wage hike in a fiscal 2007 labor and health spending bill.

House Republican leaders, who oppose raising the minimum wage, have put that bill on a back burner because of the amendment.

(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan)