WASHINGTON – Increasing the minimum wage should be easy for a Congress controlled by Democrats, especially with President Bush's pledge of support.
But a $2.10 boost for America's lowest-paid workers is again being delayed, this time in a tussle over whether to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq.
It's been 10 years since the last minimum wage increase, and boosting it from $5.15 to $7.25 per hour over the next two years was a key element of Democrats' midterm election platform. They even added a sweetener for Republicans: $4.8 billion in tax cuts for small businesses over 10 years.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., decided to attach the minimum wage provisions to the Iraq war spending bill. Normally that's must-pass legislation. Now it's certain to be the subject of Bush's second veto after Democrats loaded it up with a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops.
"That's just a temporary detour," said Alan Viard, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He said Democrats will find a way to quickly move the minimum wage legislation back to the White House.
Republicans say Democrats could have had a minimum wage bill passed and signed by now if they hadn't added it to the Iraq war bill. "This isn't about getting a minimum wage increase done, it's another political stunt that only further delays action," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.
Democrats declined to say how they plan to get the bill back to the White House: as a separate bill or, more likely, as an attachment to the next Iraq war spending bill they intend to get to Bush by Memorial Day. The latter, they maintain, would give them a little more leverage by forcing Republicans to vote against money for American troops to block the minimum wage package.
"We will take whatever steps are necessary to get a minimum wage increase enacted into law as quickly as possible," said Tom Kiley, spokesman for Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chair of the House Education and Labor Committee.
The White House has complained the tax cuts are too small in the minimum wage measure as now written. Fratto said Bush's advisers might recommend he veto it. A veto may be more difficult if other measures in the Iraq spending bill are to the president's liking.
Increases in the minimum wage are often leveraged against something, or used as leverage for something else.
For example, Democrats last year killed a proposed minimum wage increase after Republicans paired it with a cut in inheritance taxes on multimillion-dollar estates. Republicans easily muscled the legislation through the House but Senate Democrats refused to allow it to go to the White House for approval.
The last minimum wage increase was in 1997. This has been the longest stretch without the federal pay floor rising since the minimum wage was established in 1938.
Currently, a person working 40 hours per week at the current minimum wage of $5.15 makes about $10,700 a year. An increase to $7.25 would boost that to just over $15,000 a year.
More than two dozen states and the District of Columbia have minimum wages higher than the federal level. Minimum wage workers are typically young, single and female and are often black or Hispanic.