WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats on Monday threatened to stall a welfare bill (search) because of a separate dispute over raising the minimum wage, the latest election-year battle over workers' wages and benefits.
The legislation would renew the 1996 welfare law that allowed states to impose tough new rules and helped spark a reduction in welfare rolls. The law expired in 2002, but has been extended several times to give Congress more time to act.
Senate Republican leaders want to complete work on the legislation this week. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist pleaded with colleagues to stick to welfare issues and "not allow extraneous items to delay us."
But in the opening hours of debate, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said that if Republicans do not agree to a vote on raising the hourly minimum wage (search) from $5.15 to $7, Democrats would "use all the other kinds of parliamentary moves that we know how to use."
Kennedy insisted that pay for low-income workers was closely related to welfare reform's central aim of moving people off welfare and into jobs.
Last week, a corporate tax bill stalled in the Senate, held up by Democrats pushing for a showdown on overtime pay for white-collar workers.
The overtime issue — blocking changes to federal labor laws that stripped overtime pay (search) from workers now eligible for the benefit — could pop up again on the welfare bill, along with a measure to extend federal unemployment benefits.
The House approved a Republican welfare reform bill last year to require more single mothers to work and to provide hundreds of millions of dollars to promote marriage.
The bill would put strict limits on the amount of time most welfare recipients can spend in education and training programs, require states to put more of its welfare recipients to work and each person to work more hours.
It would limit people to five years of benefits over their lifetimes and continue to ban legal immigrants from aid programs. It would provide $16.5 billion a year for states to run their programs and offer a modest increase in child care spending.
The Senate version also would require more hours of work each week, but not as many as the House bill. Sen. Olympia Snowe (search), R-Maine, proposed an amendment providing an additional $6 billion for child care.
"Without good child care, a parent is left with only two choices — leave the child in an unsafe or often unsupervised situation or not work. Both of them are lose-lose situations," Snowe said.
The Bush administration opposes Snowe's amendment.
Studies find that most people who have left welfare are working, earning more than they got from the government but not enough to escape poverty.