Minimum Wage Tangles Both Parties

Posted March 7, 2005 at 7:00am

Today’s Senate votes on raising the minimum wage will serve largely as an exercise in futility for both parties, even as Democrats and Republicans give themselves political cover for having pushed the issue in the first place.

As part of the Senate’s ongoing debate over a bankruptcy overhaul bill, Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Rick Santorum (Pa.) are preparing for dueling votes this evening that would theoretically raise the minimum amount employers can pay hourly workers.

Kennedy would hike the hourly wage rate from the current $5.15 to $7.25 over two years. Santorum would increase it to $6.25. Congress has not raised the minimum wage since 1996.

But rather than this becoming a debate about the general wisdom of their proposals, both sides agreed beforehand to stack the deck against themselves. This was done partly to ensure that the amendments would not pass, thus avoiding a confrontation with the House that could have sunk the bankruptcy bill, and partly because both sides would have mounted filibusters to prevent the other from holding a regular up-or-down vote on the proposals.

Instead of using timeworn procedural maneuvers to force a 60-vote threshold for passage, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) simply asked unanimous consent to force both proposals to get 60 votes in order to be added to the bill. Normally, only a simple majority would be enough to push an amendment over the top.

“This agreement just reflects the reality of the situation,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “The bottom line is each one was going to have to face a 60-vote hurdle.”

Because of the agreement, neither amendment is expected to pass. Only a handful of Republicans are expected to join a majority of the 45 Senate Democrats in voting for the Kennedy amendment. Similarly, Republicans, who are expected to give their proposal more than 50 votes, purposely wrote their proposal to make it distasteful to the majority of Democrats.

Besides, Senate Republicans would be in for some serious trouble if enough Democrats voted for Santorum’s proposal to push it over the 60-vote limit. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) has promised to quickly pass the Senate version of the bankruptcy bill if it comes over from the Senate without any “substantive amendments,” according to a Friday statement.

In fact, Republicans used an ingenious tactic to make sure that Democrats would not just pile onto the Santorum plan. Rather than simply raising the minimum wage and offering tax breaks for small businesses — a GOP proposal that has garnered significant Democratic support in the past — Santorum’s amendment also would allow employers to offer workers “flex time,” rather than overtime pay, for up to 10 hours over an 80-hour two-week period. That’s a proposal that has consistently been rejected by Democrats and their allies in organized labor.

Kennedy called the amendment “riddled with anti-worker poison pills,” in a Friday statement.

“Sen. Santorum has consistently opposed a minimum-wage increase, and now he’s suddenly in favor of a modest increase only if we also end the 40-hour work week by denying workers overtime pay,” Kennedy continued.

But one GOP leadership aide said Kennedy should take what he can get.

“Does Kennedy really want a minimum wage increase or does he want the issue?” the aide asked.

Of course, there are other issues blocking both amendments.

Even Santorum acknowledged in a floor speech last week that he really doesn’t think a minimum wage increase should actually be added to the bankruptcy overhaul bill.

Kennedy’s proposal, said Santorum, “doesn’t belong on this bill. Even the amendment I will offer as an alternative does not belong on the bill.”

Santorum has instead offered to try to get a minimum wage increase added to the reauthorization of the 1996 Welfare-to-Work measure, which itself has been stalled for the past two years. The Senate Finance Committee is set to markup a version of the welfare reauthorization this week.

But Kennedy noted that an attempt last year to add a minimum-wage increase to the welfare bill caused Frist to pull the measure from the Senate floor.

Of course, Democrats say the minimum wage vote during the bankruptcy debate is just the first step to actually enacting a minimum wage increase.

“Even having a vote has been a difficult thing to achieve recently,” said Kennedy spokeswoman Laura Capps. “We’re going to be getting people on the record.”

In the past, Kennedy has forced numerous votes on the issue before securing its passage by the Senate. Indeed, because of the new 55-vote GOP majority in the chamber, Kennedy doesn’t yet know who his GOP allies may be.

“We had more than 50 [votes] before the [2004] election, but this is the beginning of the campaign in this new Congress. This will be the first test to see where the votes lie,” Capps said.

If the Senate were to defy predictions and pass either minimum wage proposal, 35 states would be affected. Twenty-seven set their minimum wage at the federal level, six have no laws governing minimum wages, and two states (Kansas and Ohio) set their minimum wage below the federal level.

Meanwhile, 15 mostly Democratic-leaning states (Washington, Oregon, California, Illinois, Nevada, Florida, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, Delaware, Rhode Island, and Connecticut) already have minimum wage laws that set the bar higher than the federal level.