WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans failed Thursday to stop Democratic efforts to get election-year votes on raising the minimum wage (search) and other economic issues.
Republicans needed 60 votes to limit debate on a bill to renew the 1996 welfare law (search), but fell nine votes short in a 51-47 Senate roll call.
It was the second time in two weeks they lost an attempt in the closely divided Senate to sidestep Democrats who want to call attention to issues of workers' wages and benefits.
Last week, Republicans pulled a corporate tax bill after they lost a similar fight to limit debate and prevent a vote on blocking new rules that would remove federal guarantees of time-and-a-half pay for many white-collar workers.
The welfare legislation also could be set aside, even though lawmakers in both parties agree it would pass the Senate easily if it could reach a final vote. Democrats vowed not to let that final vote happen if they also couldn't get a vote their measure to increase the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7 over the next two years.
The welfare law, credited with reducing welfare rolls by nearly 60 percent, expired in 2002, but it has been extended several times to give Congress more time to act. The latest extension is set to expire June 30.
The House welfare bill approved last year on a party-line vote would require more single mothers to work and provide hundreds of millions of dollars to promote marriage.
The bill would strictly limit how much time most welfare recipients can spend in education and training programs; would require states to put more welfare recipients to work; and would require each person to work more hours.
It would limit people to five years of benefits over their lifetimes and would provide $16.5 billion a year for states to run their programs and offer a modest increase in child care spending. Legal immigrants would still be unable to benefit from aid programs under the legislation.
The Senate version also would require more hours of work each week, but not as many as the House bill. The Senate also voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to add $6 billion for child care, despite objections from the White House that the money is not needed.
But before the legislation makes it through the Senate, Democrats want votes on raising the minimum wage, extending federal unemployment insurance (search) and stopping planned changes to overtime rules that would strip extra pay from workers now eligible for the benefit.
"The idea that the minimum wage is unrelated to the underlying bill defies any logic," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said.
Republicans say that those provisions are meant to highlight Democratic issues in an election year, and contend that they are part of an ongoing campaign of obstruction by Democrats trying to prevent the Republican-led Congress from passing major legislation.
Those votes would be allowed to take place, GOP leaders say, if Democrats would agree not to block Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist from naming negotiators to work out differences in the legislation with the House.
Democrats have been protesting what they say is a pattern of being shut out of the negotiating process.
"We're willing to pay a ransom, but we want to make certain we'll get the victim back," said Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., who said Democrats could still effectively stop the legislation without the agreement on negotiators.
Republicans acknowledged they're reluctant to vote on the Democratic amendments. "Why put our members through the whole litany of Democratic political votes for no discernible gain?" said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
Last week, Republicans sidelined a corporate tax bill after they lost a similar fight to limit debate and prevent a vote on the overtime issue.