WASHINGTON – In the first abortion-related test of the new Congress, the Republican-controlled Senate turned back a Democratic effort Tuesday to bar violent protesters from using bankruptcy (search) to avoid payment of court judgments.
The 53-46 vote cleared one of the few remaining obstacles to passage of major bankruptcy legislation that is high on the GOP legislative agenda.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (search), D-N.Y., said the provision "goes right to the heart of what America is all about. It says those who use violence to achieve their political goals cannot get a benefit, in this case bankruptcy."
But Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, argued it was unnecessary because bankruptcy courts have never absolved protesters of payment of fines or penalties. He called it an "incendiary, extraneous, redundant poison pill (search) amendment" whose true purpose was to complicate passage of the broader bankruptcy bill.
The vote marked the second time in as many days that Republicans showed their command of proceedings on the Senate floor. On Monday, they turned aside a Democratic-led attempt to attach a minimum wage (search) increase to the bankruptcy measure.
The legislation cleared its final major hurdle at mid-afternoon, a 69-31, on a vote to limit debate and Democratic opportunities for further amendments. Senate Republican leaders hope for final passage this week. That would send the measure to the House, where final approval is expected quickly.
Approval of Schumer's amendment would have complicated that timetable, since abortion foes in the House signaled in advance they find the proposal objectionable.
A similar dispute thwarted efforts to pass bankruptcy legislation in 2002. Senate GOP leaders, their hand strengthened by the gain of four seats in last fall's elections, labored successfully to prevent a repeat.
Naral-Pro Choice America (search) showcased the vote, calling it the first abortion test of the new Congress.
"Senators need to decide who they will stand with. There is not a single state where there is widespread support for turning this bill into the Firebomber Legal Protection Act," said Nancy Keenan, president of the organization.
Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee (search) said his organization has no position on the amendment.
The minimum wage debate was old business with a new twist.
Fearful they might lose, majority Republicans blocked several Democratic attempts to force a vote on an increase over the past two years.
After gaining four seats in November, they decided to go ahead, confident they would prevail. The last increase in the minimum wage was in 1996.
"Wages do not cause sales. Sales are needed to provide wages. Wages do not cause revenue. Revenue drives wages," said Enzi, one of several GOP lawmakers to argue that Democrats were proposing an increase that would hurt entry-level workers.
"When you raise the minimum wage you are pricing some workers out of the market," said Sen. John Sununu (news, bio, voting record), R-N.H.
Democrats were occasionally scathing in defeat.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said some minimum wage employees earn $5,000 less than the amount needed to avoid poverty. He also accused Republicans of advancing a "deeper poverty agenda for the poor" by proposing a smaller minimum wage increase, coupled with provisions he said would cut long-standing wage and overtime protections for millions of Americans.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said that for years, Congress approved increases in the minimum wage under Democratic and Republican presidents alike. "We stopped doing it eight years ago when Republicans took control of Congress. They decided this was a partisan issue," he said.
Democrats and some Republicans said the GOP alternative was designed to give Republicans a measure to vote for, rather than leaving them merely the position of opposing the Democratic-backed increase.
The two alternatives varied widely.
Democrats sought minimum wage increases in three steps of 70 cents each, to $7.25. Republicans countered with raises in two steps of 55 cents apiece, to $6.25, as well as several pro-business provisions.
These include an option for employees to work up to 80 hours over two weeks without qualifying for overtime pay; a provision restricting the ability of states to raise the minimum wage for restaurant employees; and waiving wage and overtime rules for workers in some small businesses now covered.