WASHINGTON – Democrats are readying a maximum effort to raise the minimum wage.
Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said Thursday that increasing the federal minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25 would be his top priority as chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
On the House side, incoming Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., already has listed an increase in the minimum wage as one of the issues that would be taken up during the first 100 hours of the next Congress.
"Americans are working harder than ever, but millions of hardworking men and women across the country aren't getting their fair share," Kennedy said during a speech outlining his legislative agenda for next year. "We're not rewarding work fairly anymore, and working families are falling behind."
President Bush signaled readiness last week to consider some Democratic priorities such as a minimum-wage increase, overhauling immigration policy and finding compromise on renewing the No Child Left Behind education law.
Critics of boosting the minimum wage say it kills job creation as employers hire fewer entry-level workers to compensate for the higher wage expenses. Kennedy said the minimum wage has remained at $5.15 an hour for nearly 10 years. Under Kennedy's proposal, the increase would occur over about a two-year period.
Most states have their own minimum wages laws, with some states having rates the same as the federal minimum wage and some with rates higher than the federal minimum.
Kennedy noted that ballot initiatives establishing or raising the minimum wage in six states all passed in this month's election.
"If there is one message from this election that emerged loud and clear, it's that no one who works for a living should have to live in poverty," Kennedy said.
Kennedy also said he would seek to expand federal support for research on stem cells coming from embryos, which Congress approved last year, but Bush vetoed. The issue won't go away, he promised.
On education, Kennedy said he would seek to make college more affordable by increasing the size of Pell Grants from $4,050 to $5,100, and by cutting interest rates on student loans.
He said that the student loan business has become too profitable for the banking industry. "It's time to take the moneychangers out of the temple on student loans," he said.
On health care, Kennedy said the Senate's HELP committee would expand a health insurance program that now provides health coverage for about 4 million children. He also would look for ways to expand coverage to other populations too, he said, but he did not provide specifics, such as how to pay for that coverage.
Some of the programs that Kennedy cited as priorities, such as lowering classroom sizes, expanding job training, and increasing financial aide for students, would require more money. He said that some of the money can be found just by adjusting priorities.
"There's a lot of money rattling around out there. The question is, who's going to get it," Kennedy told reporters.
Kennedy said that raising taxes on the poor and middle class "are all off the table for me," but he said he would look at raising what he referred to as the millionaires' tax.