WASHINGTON – House Republican leaders, giving in to political reality, plan a vote to raise the $5.15 minimum wage before leaving Washington this weekend for a five-week recess.
"Whether people like it or not, we need to go ahead with it," said Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., who supports the idea. "There's a general agreement among Republicans (opposing the raise) that `maybe we don't like it much, but we need to move forward with it just for political reasons."'
The No. 3 House GOP leader, Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri, said the plan was to have a vote before week's end. But Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Republicans leaders were working to pass the increase but that "no decisions have been made."
It was a decade ago, during the hotly contested campaign year of 1996, that Congress voted to increase the minimum wage. A person working 40 hours per week at minimum wage makes $10,700, which is below the poverty line for workers with families.
Democrats have made increasing the wage a pillar of their campaign platform and are pushing to raise the wage to $7.25 per hour over two years. In June, the Republican-controlled Senate refused to raise the minimum wage, rejecting a proposal from Democrats.
The chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee said the GOP would embrace the increase to $7.25 per hour and probably attach a proposal passed last year that would make it easier for small business to band together and buy health insurance plans for employees at a lower cost. Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif., said the minimum wage bill probably will not include tax cuts such as a repeal of the estate tax.
It was not clear what other potential add-ons might soothe unhappy lawmakers and GOP opponents of a wage increase such as the small business lobby.
House Democrats cried foul on Thursday, saying Republicans planned to add "poison pills" for their business allies. Many Democrats oppose the small business health insurance legislation because it would overrule state laws requiring coverage for procedures such as diabetes care and cancer screenings.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California demanded a vote on a bill that would just increase the minimum wage. She spoke out against "the usual Republican poison pills of attaching tax cuts for the wealthy or other so-called sweeteners for the Republican special interests."
Inflation has eroded the minimum wage's buying power to the lowest level in about 50 years. Yet lawmakers have won cost-of-living wage increases totaling about $35,000 over that time. So House GOP leaders are bowing to the inevitable on the increase.
Forty-eight Republicans, many of them moderates or representing districts with large working-class populations, wrote Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., requesting a vote this week on an increase.
"It is time for Congress to take responsible action to raise the minimum wage and ensure our hardworking constituents can provide for their families," said the letter, drafted by Reps. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, and Frank LoBiondo, R-N.J.
Conservatives responded with a letter signed by 31 Republicans asking that no vote be held.
"Quickly increased labor costs unrelated to business conditions will encourage or force employers to fire employees, reduce working hours for existing employees, and/or postpone plans to hire additional employees," they wrote.
After a private meeting Thursday morning of House Republicans, many lawmakers said they believed the wage increase would advance when Congress returns in September.
"There seems to be a consensus that we'll do it after the break," said Rep. Tim Johnson, R-Ill.
But GOP leaders such as Boehner believe that if the vote is to happen, it makes political sense to do it now, otherwise Democrats could hammer Republicans on the issue during the summer break.