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HOUSE LEADERS CLEAR WAY FOR MINIMUM-WAGE VOTE

The House will vote within two weeks on an election-year hike in the minimum wage, Republican leaders announced Friday in a hard-won concession to minority Democrats and GOP moderates.

In a written statement, Speaker Newt Gingrich and Majority Leader Dick Armey said the vote would come as part of debate on GOP-drafted legislation to "create opportunity and increase the take-home pay of low-wage workers." Many of the provisions under discussion would provide tax relief for small business and make changes in labor law.The announcement marked a retreat for the Republican leaders, who issued a statement several weeks ago outlining proposals to raise take-home pay but omitting any mention of increasing the minimum wage.

Even so, Democratic leader Dick Gephardt accused Gingrich and Armey of resorting to "legislative contortions" to avoid a straightforward vote. "I think it's a cynical, transparent way to hide the obvious," he said of the GOP maneuvering. "That this Republican Congress is too busy putting special interests first to put working Americans first."

Supporters of an increase, including President Clinton, Democrats and some Republicans, say that at $4.25 an hour, the minimum wage is approaching a 40-year low in purchasing power.

Many Republicans strongly oppose an increase, claiming it will cost jobs as businesses adjust to higher labor costs.

The version likely to be voted on would provide for a 50-cent-an-hour hike three months after the legislation is signed and an additional 50 cent-an-hour increase a year later. The proposal is widely expected to pass if it comes to a vote.

The minimum wage issue is also at the center of a legislative struggle in the Senate, where Democrats are demanding a vote. Majority Leader Bob Dole first tried to prevent it, then tried tying the issue to a rollback in the federal gasoline tax.

Dole met with Democratic leader Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D., Friday, but there was no indication that the logjam had been broken.

The concession by Gingrich and Armey came as the Republicans struggled to keep control of the House floor on the issue. Democrats have been trying to force the minimum wage onto the floor, and while they have failed each time, they are also gradually picking up support among moderate Republicans who hold the balance of power.

"In order to preserve core Republican principles, yet not lose control of the floor, House leadership must allow some type of vote under circumstances that they control and as part of broader legislation," said a memo prepared Thurs-day for the leadership.

Moderate Republicans, led by Rep. Jack Quinn of New York, have been pushing for a $1 increase over 15 months in the $4.25-an-hour minimum wage. Quinn couldn't immediately be reached for comment on the leadership's announcement but has said repeatedly in recent days he and other moderates would object to attaching the provision to "poison pill" legislation that would be defeated.