Minimum-Wage Hike Fight Coming

Posted January 30, 2004 at 5:22pm

When the minimum wage was last increased in 1996, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) used a long, drawn-out strategy of repeatedly forcing the Republican majority to vote on the issue until it finally acquiesced to a stand-alone measure tied to small-business tax breaks.

In his renewed push this year to secure at least $1.50 more an hour than the current $5.15 minimum hourly wage, Kennedy, along with Senate Democratic leaders, will try to use that same tried and true strategy again.

“I’m absolutely convinced — this is the start of the session — that we’re not going to have a problem,” Kennedy said of his minimum-wage push. “We can do it on any authorization bill.”

Indeed, Kennedy has said he will try to add his minimum-wage bill to virtually every piece of legislation that moves through the Senate this year.

While the highway bill debate that begins this week will likely get a pass, Kennedy has said he might offer his proposal to a class-action lawsuit measure, the budget resolution or other GOP legislative priorities, including appropriations bills if necessary.

“It often takes a couple of different votes to get it through the Senate,” said Kennedy spokesman Jim Manley.

However, Senate Republican leaders say their familiarity with Kennedy’s strategy will help them counteract it with some new moves of their own, whether it means outright trying to filibuster, forcing other politically motivated votes that Democrats might find uncomfortable in an election year, or other unspecified alternatives.

Budget Chairman Don Nickles (R-Okla.) said Kennedy could expect a brutal fight.

“He might get to vote on some things that he doesn’t want to vote on,” said Nickles, who declined to be more specific.

Though Republicans now control the White House, whereas they didn’t in 1996, it still may prove difficult to stop a minimum-wage increase from passing the Senate this year given the general sentiment among nearly all Democrats and many moderate Republicans that after seven years, the time has come to increase it again.

An informal survey of both moderate Senate Republicans and Democrats shows that there is increased interest this year in passing a minimum-wage hike, especially since 12 states and the District of Columbia already have a higher minimum wage that the current federal standard.

“I’m not at all opposed to an increase in the minimum wage,” said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.). “It’s of no consequence to many states.”

Oregon’s minimum-wage rate, which is currently $7.05 an hour, is raised yearly to account for inflation, according to the Labor Department.

Six other states (Illinois, Vermont, Connecticut, Washington, Maine and Massachusetts) and the District have wage laws that either require them to pay more than the federal minimum wage each time it is increased or require pay increases based on inflation.

Most moderates said they were either firmly in favor of an increase or would at least favorably entertain the notion.

For example, Sens. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), Zell Miller (D-Ga.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) all said they are open to the proposal as long as it is again attached to a package designed to reduce the potential negative impact on small businesses.

“I would only consider it in light of some small-business tax reform that moved with it,” said Grassley, who chairs the Finance Committee and would likely have to devise the package of tax breaks.

But a senior GOP aide said selling small-business tax breaks may be more difficult this year given that President Bush’s tax cuts over the past several years have already targeted small businesses in ways similar to the previous minimum-wage package.

“There’s no easy answer to building on our past efforts” to decrease the impact on small businesses, said the aide.

Still, several moderate Senators said they would be hard-pressed to vote against a minimum-wage increase even if it was attached to an unrelated bill.

“I expect I’d, in general, be supportive even if it was attached to other bills,” said Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.).

While Kennedy hopes he will win a minimum-wage vote on a measure to send more class-action lawsuits to federal courts, which is a GOP priority this year, the budget resolution fight, which could pop up on the floor first, may be the first real test.

Indeed, Kennedy plans to offer a nonbinding amendment to the fiscal 2005 budget resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that the minimum wage should be increased this year.

Though the budget vote would not actually enact a wage increase, Manley said it would help Kennedy get Members on the record as supporting a wage increase. Then Kennedy could begin to put pressure on them to support a free-standing bill.

Though the minimum-wage bill only proposes raising the rate to $6.65 within 14 months, Manley noted that Kennedy would like to see the wage limit increased to $7 since inflation over the past few years has made a $1.50 increase less consequential.

Of the 7 million people currently earning the minimum wage, 60 percent are women and more than 40 percent are racial minorities, according to Kennedy’s office.

A wage increase would chiefly affect 38 states that currently use the $5.15 an hour rate. Twenty-nine states have laws that set the minimum wage at the federal level, while seven states (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee) have no laws governing minimum wage.

Kansas and Ohio are the only two states with minimum-wage laws that set the bar below the federal limit, with $2.65 per hour and $4.25 per hour respectively. Businesses in those two states are obliged to adhere to federal guidelines.