Minimum Wage Workers Not Seeing Progress in Their Political War

Both Democrats and Republicans insist they emerged as winners from last week's failed GOP effort to cut taxes on multimillion dollar estates and raise the minimum wage.

Senate Democrats succeeded in blocking Republicans from sending President Bush a bill that also included extending some popular tax breaks — research and development credits for businesses and deductions for college tuition and state sales taxes — in addition to the minimum wage and estate tax provisions.

Each side vowed to use the vote to gain favor with voters, who'll pick winners and losers in November.

Politics aside, the groups impacted by the demise of the GOP-drafted bill face varying prospects for success in ultimately achieving their goals.

The estate tax doesn't have to be addressed until the end of 2010, when current law expires, giving farmers and the small business lobby ample time. It's common wisdom in Washington that the so-called tax extenders will pass this fall despite Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's declaration that last week's shot was the only one they'll get.

Left behind, however, are more than 5 million hotel maids, dishwashers, fast food and janitorial workers and other minimum wage earners stuck at $5.15 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage is the lowest it's been in 50 years.

Frist — a Tennessee Republican with White House ambitions — labeled his handiwork the "trifecta" bill because of its three key elements. He said Democrats will be held accountable for blocking the measure.

"It is crystal clear where everybody voted on these three issues," Frist said. "They're voting against a majority of the American people on each of these three issues. They've got to explain that."

Democrats, who have been agitating for a minimum wage hike for years, said pairing it with costly tax cuts for millionaires was simply too high a price to pay.

"If there were ever a clear illustration of who (Republicans) are and who we are, take a look at what happened this week," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters Friday.

Some more neutral observers tilted the political advantage to Democrats.

"It's a serious setback for Republicans," said political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "They've got the power. They can't make it happen. I can't find an instance in the past where a party with all the reins of power has been able to get away with blaming the guys in the minority and I don't think it works this time."

Added Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution: "It's a loss for Frist politically, and on balance, it adds to the Democratic charge that this Congress and this administration is not getting important things done."

Both parties look to capitalize on the minimum wage-estate tax votes in an election year in which polls suggest Democrats could make gains or even seize control of Congress. The most recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll showed only 27 percent approved of the way lawmakers were doing their jobs.

Thursday's Senate vote and a July 29 House vote did give GOP supporters of raising the minimum wage inoculation against an especially potent attack by Democrats — that Republicans in Congress have refused to raise the minimum wage for 10 years, even as they've accepted pay raises totaling $35,000 over that time.

Frist's estate tax gambit was launched with the expectation that Democrats such as Maria Cantwell of Washington, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Robert Byrd of West Virginia could be drawn on board under pressure from home state interests.

Byrd ultimately was the only Democrat to switch in favor of the estate tax bill after voting against it in June. He came on board after Republicans added a long-sought plan to pay for abandoned coal mine cleanup projects and health care for retired miners.

Other Democrats said the 10-year, $268 billion cost of the estate tax measure was too high.

"The estate tax package before the Senate goes far beyond what our nation can afford," Pryor said.