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Democrats Seek GOP Support For Minimum Wage Boost

By Lori Nitschke, CQ Staff Writer

With action on the election-year legislative agenda beginning to pick up, House and Senate Democrats unveiled a major priority March 19 -- an increase in the minimum wage.

At a news conference attended largely by labor groups and advocates for the poor, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Rep. David E. Bonior, D-Mich., announced the introduction of bills (S1805, HR3510) to increase the minimum wage by 50 cents in 1999 and again in 2000, raising it from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour.

President Clinton endorsed the wage increase March 18 and National Economic Council Chairman Gene Sperling attended the news conference to reiterate the administration's commitment to it. Clinton had called for an increase during his Jan. 27 State of the Union address.

The administration's backing buoyed Democrats' hopes that they could persuade successive Congresses to raise the wage. But it is unclear whether they can attract the Republican support that was crucial to passing the measure in the 104th Congress. All current cosponsors of Kennedy and Bonior's bills are Democrats, although Sperling predicted that "by the end of 1998, it will be bipartisan legislation again."

In 1996, Senate Democrats began a campaign in March to increase the minimum wage by 90 cents an hour and gummed up chamber action throughout much of the spring by attaching the proposal to nearly every measure that came to the floor. The tactic fueled Republican dissent, and after GOP moderates moved to support a wage increase, their leaders reluctantly agreed to bring up the issue for a floor vote, paired with a tax break package for businesses. The Senate cleared the bill Aug. 2 and Clinton signed it (PL 104-188) on Aug. 20.

Republicans have yet to show such interest in the proposal this time. House GOP Conference Chairman John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement: "The best way to improve the lives of working Americans is clear: Cut their taxes, not their jobs." Boehner added a commentary on Democrats' tactics: "This transparently political game makes it clear that Democrats are more interested in politics than solving problems."

Democrats say they can make Republicans uncomfortable enough with the debate to garner support from some. They said they plan to do that largely by dusting off the 1996 tactics.

Kennedy, who spearheaded the Democrats' efforts to raise the wage in 1996, may fire this year's opening salvo when the Senate takes up the fiscal 1999 budget resolution, according to spokesman Jim Manley. The budget resolution is a non-binding measure that does not have the force of law. Kennedy's efforts would mirror his strategy of 1996, when Democrats began with a soft sell and progressed to more strident tactics. A similar "full-court press" will likely follow in ensuing weeks, Manley said.

The Working Poor

Democrats say another wage increase is necessary if low-wage workers are to partake in the record-breaking economy of recent years. "Our economy is strong enough to give these families a raise," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D. "If we can't raise it now, when can we raise it?" asked Bonior.

According to Bernard E. Anderson, an assistant Labor secretary, the $1 increase Democrats are proposing would restore the real value of the wage to a level it last held in 1981. Inflation and President Ronald Reagan's adamant opposition to an increase eroded the wage's relative value during the 1980s.

Anderson said the minimum wage was generally worth more than 50 percent of the average national hourly wage during the 1950s and 1960s, 46 percent in the 1970s and nearly 40 percent in the 1980s and 1990s. Even if the proposed increase were enacted, bringing the wage to $6.15 an hour, the wage would still be less than half the average hourly wage, which stood at $12.64 in February, according to Anderson.

Democrats argue that such statistics show how low-wage earners have not taken part in the economic growth of the past decade, but conservative groups say a minimum wage increase would not remedy that situation.

"Although wage differences have widened over the past 20 years, such bad economic policy as a mandated minimum wage for workers serves only to exacerbate the problem," concluded a recent paper by D. Mark Wilson, a labor economist for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Wilson said an increase would stem job growth and keep welfare recipients and others from getting jobs. And he said the Democrats' proposed wage increase, coupled with the last one, would result in an unprecedented increase over four years.

© 1998 Congressional Quarterly Inc. All rights reserved.
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Saturday March 22, 1998

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Offsets Spat Marks Latest Chapter In House GOP's Struggle To Govern
Democrats Seek GOP Support For Minimum Wage Boost
GOP Initiatives Hamper Efforts To Reach Out To Minority Groups

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