Workers Wages Consume Welfare Bill Debate

For the second time in as many weeks, major legislation is languishing in the Senate because Democrats and Republicans are at an impasse on issues of workers' wages and benefits.

The Senate is trying to complete work on a bill to renew the 1996 welfare law (search) that allowed states to impose tough new rules and helped reduce welfare rolls.

Both sides say they want to move ahead, but Democrats are insisting on votes on amendments to raise the hourly minimum wage (search) from $5.15 to $7, block changes to federal labor laws that stripped overtime pay from workers now eligible for the benefit and extend federal unemployment benefits.

Republicans so far are resisting, calling the amendments election-year grandstanding unrelated to welfare. "Move this legislation along because this legislation is so important in moving people out of poverty," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, implored his colleagues.

But Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said a minimum wage increase is needed. "We have refused to increase the minimum wage now for seven years," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said the Senate could vote, perhaps as early as Thursday, to block amendments. Republicans, who hold 51 seats in the Senate, need 60 votes to close off further discussion. If they can't get 60 votes, the legislation could be set aside.

A corporate tax bill stalled last week in the Senate over the overtime provision.

The dispute overshadowed a brief bipartisan display Tuesday in which the Senate voted for an additional $6 billion for child care for welfare recipients and the working poor, over White House objections.

Frist was among 31 Republicans who supported the increase, which passed 78-20 despite the Bush administration's contention that significant reductions in welfare rolls have freed up money for child care. House Republicans did not include it in the version of the legislation that passed the House last year.

The provision would send states $20.5 billion over five years in the form of block grants (search) for programs for children up to 13 years of age. Its authors, Sens. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said hundreds of thousands of children could lose child care without the extra money, which in turn could force thousands of low-income parents to give up their jobs.

State budget crises already have caused reductions in child care budgets, Dodd said. "Virtually every state has pared back in one way or another their support for child care," Dodd said.

One opponent of the additional money, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said a $1 billion increase already built into the legislation was sufficient. "The idea that there isn't enough money out there for day care is a ruse," Santorum said. "What this is about is a social policy that people should be more and more dependent upon government."

It is unclear whether Republicans in the House would accept the sizable child care increase, but Snowe and Dodd said Tuesday's vote indicated the Senate probably would not support welfare legislation without additional money.

The government said Tuesday that the number of people on welfare has declined by nearly 60 percent since the law took effect, from 12 million people to 4.9 million in September.

Still, welfare rolls increased in 25 states and the District of Columbia in the 12-month period that ended in September. Battleground states of Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia were among some of the states showing an increase.

The welfare law expired in 2002, but has been extended several times to give Congress more time to act.