Democratic Wage Victory Could Hit Partisan Snags

Aa a bill to raise the federal minimum wage cleared the Senate floor this week, New York Sen. Patrick Moynihan thrust a jubilant fist in the air.

For Mr. Moynihan and fellow Democrats, approval of a 90-cents-an-hour wage increase over the objections of Republican leaders is a political coup worth celebrating.

But in practice, Tuesday's minimum-wage vote guarantees nothing. Faced with a crowded legislative docket and a looming presidential election, the minimum-wage bill may not make it to President Clinton's desk. And lingering questions about the economic effects of a wage hike continue to cloud its future.

At a time when most Americans are concerned about economic security, and lawmakers prepare to ease millions of people from welfare to work, the social and political stakes of the minimum-wage debate have never been higher. "If you're looking for a straw in the [political] wind," Vice President Al Gore said before the wage issue hit the Senate floor, "look no further than this vote."

Politically, Tuesday's vote is an unmitigated victory for congressional Democrats. After months of guerrilla warfare in both chambers, where they tried to add the wage issue as an amendment to nearly every bill, Democrats finally prevailed on Republican leaders to schedule votes.

In light of polls showing that as many as 85 percent of voters approve of the increase, many Republicans threw their support behind the measure, leading to its passage by wide margins in both the House and Senate. "We know how to count votes," says Florida Sen. Connie Mack (R), an opponent of the increase, "and we realize when we don't have them."

Democrats plan to use the minimum-wage issue as a centerpiece of the campaign season. It fits their larger strategy of painting Republicans as radicals more attuned to the wealthy than workers. After the vote, Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy characterized the outcome as a triumph for "the invisible Americans who have been left out and left behind."

In their defense, Republicans note that their plan to put more money in workers' pockets - a $500 per-child tax credit for working families - was vetoed last year. And despite its good intentions, they argue, the hike will imperil the jobs of the most vulnerable workers. "There's something worse than low wages and that's no wages," says Senate majority leader Trent Lott.

But most GOP leaders seem willing to concede the issue to Democrats and move on. "We can't get the rest of our work done without this getting in the way," Senator Mack says.

Yet the Senate's passage does not ensure the measure will become law this year. Only eight legislative weeks remain, and the calendar is packed. Lawmakers may not have time to reconcile the House and Senate bills. Besides, Democrats might entertain a Republican effort to block the bill, which would allow them to continue to portray Republicans as radical.

Sen. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma raised that possibility after the vote, suggesting GOP leaders may prevent the bill from proceeding to conference in the same way Democrats have stalled a health-insurance reform bill.

If the measure does become law, some economists warn it could have a negligible, if not negative, impact on the 10 million Americans it's designed to help. Both parties agree that any minimum-wage hike would put thousands of people out of work. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the increase would cost businesses $12 billion over five years and could result in 500,000 layoffs.

Republicans argue that this automatic downsizing will most affect minority teenagers and single mothers, who make up a large percentage of the minimum wage-earning group.

To offset these costs, both chambers passed companion bills that contain small business tax breaks. The $7 billion House version and the $11 billion Senate bill must be reconciled.

Democrats argue that these offsets will more than compensate for increased costs. They point to studies, like one prepared by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, that say that as few as 20,000 jobs may be eliminated in the wake of the hike.

Besides, Democrats say, the widening gap between rich and poor requires Congress to mandate that businesses of all sizes pay a living wage. "Nobody who works should have to live in poverty," Mr. Kennedy says.

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