By EDWARD EPSTEIN
San Francisco Chronicle
July 17, 2006
The Democrats have seized on the issue, which polls show is overwhelmingly popular with voters, as a building block in their effort to retake both houses of Congress in November. Their effort in Washington is moving forward as organizers in several states push ballot initiatives for the fall election to adopt or increase state minimum wages, measures that the Democrats hope could boost turnout of voters likely to lean their way.
In California, one of 21 states with minimum wages above the federal level, the Legislature is considering bills that would raise the state minimum from $6.75 to $7.75.
Republican leaders in both houses of Congress oppose an increase, saying that mandating a higher minimum wage would hurt low-wage workers by destroying their jobs. They also say the Democrats are engaged in a cynical election-year ploy.
"Listen, I've been here 16 years. And you never hear one word out of Democrats in an odd-numbered year. I wonder why that is," said House Republican Majority Leader John Boehner of Ohio, a leading opponent of a wage increase.
Democrats counter that they have long been committed to an increase, but can only pressure the Republicans who control Congress to act in an election year.
In the House, the minority party doesn't have the power to call up legislation, but it can slow the procedures and repeat a message enough to try to embarrass the majority's leaders into acting.
Just last week the Democrats turned debates on such legislation as a crackdown on Internet gambling and regulation of credit rating agencies into attacks on the Republican leadership's refusal to permit a vote on boosting the hourly minimum from $5.15 an hour, a rate set in 1997, to $7.25 an hour over two years. An estimated 7 million Americans work for the federal minimum.
"What is wrong with your leadership?" Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., taunted the Republicans during a debate last week on a vocational education bill. "Name the time. Name the place. We will be there with our votes," added Miller, a top adviser to Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
And Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., a former minimum wage worker who was forced onto welfare to support her family, mocked the Bush administration's economic priorities. "A rising tide should lift all boats, not just the yachts," she said.
Democrats were permitted a vote on what's called a motion to instruct, which is a move to order House members who eventually will confer with senators on reconciling the two bodies' versions of the vocational education bill. The motion said House conferees should push that any jobs created under the legislation pay at least $7.25 an hour.
The motion passed the House, 260-159, in a vote that many members said was a proxy on increasing the minimum wage.
The vote heartened Democrats, especially after four attempts in June to force House consideration of the minimum wage were defeated in mainly party line votes.
"I'm very proud to say that Democrats have made the issue of the minimum wage too hot to handle for the Republicans," Pelosi said. "The more we call it to the attention of the public, the more pressure there is on the Republicans."
Pelosi has joined with Senate Democratic leaders in threatening to block this year's scheduled congressional pay raise unless the minimum wage increase is passed.
The vote also came after 28 House Republicans sent Boehner a letter calling for the House to vote on a minimum wage increase this month, before Congress leaves for its long August recess. They noted that a person working for the minimum wage 40 hours a week would earn about $10,700 a year, an amount that falls below the federal poverty level for a family of three.
The signers, all Republicans from the Northeast or Midwest, included some of the Democrats' main targets for November such as Reps. Chris Shays and Rob Simmons of Connecticut and Michael Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania.
At this point, the most likely vehicle for a minimum wage vote is the appropriations bill covering the Labor and Health and Human Services departments. It is the only one of the 11 annual appropriations bills not yet considered by the House. Democrats won a committee vote attaching the minimum wage increase to the spending bill.
Eventually, the House will have to take up the bill, but the GOP leadership may prefer to do that in a lame-duck session after Nov. 7.
Boehner has spoken frequently about his opposition to an increase, and he says he does so from a blue-collar background. One of 12 children, Boehner worked in his father's bar growing up. He went to college and entered the plastics business before politics.
"The marketplace will set better wages and more flexible wages for the American people than government ever could. And by taking away the first rungs of the economic ladder, you eliminate hundreds of thousands of jobs, especially for people who can't get on the ladder because we've taken the rung away," Boehner said.
Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com
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