Forcing a savage campaign-season struggle, the House is on track to approve a modified 90-cent increase in the minimum wage despite opposition from many Republicans.
Legislation to raise the federal wage floor from $4.25 to $5.15 in two steps was slated for a vote Wednesday in the House. Minority Democrats and a small group of GOP moderates have been demanding the increase - also sought by President Clinton - from a reluctant Republican leadership.House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., Wednesday predicted the House would pass the increase along with provisions he said would benefit small businesses.
"What we tie it to is very straightforward," he said on CBS-TV. "We have several things that help small business and would encourage small business to hire more people. I think it's going to pass."
Under the measure, a 50-cent-an-hour increase would take effect on July 1, to be followed a year later by an additional 40-cent hike. It also could include several GOP provisions exempting certain small businesses and young employees during their first few months on the job.
"Democrats have refused to give up on this issue," House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt said Tuesday. "And Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole are finally showing signs of surrender, after desperately trying to stall and submerge and defeat the issue," he added of the House speaker and the Senate majority leader, the presumptive GOP presidential nominee.
House Majority Leader Richard Armey, R-Texas, made it clear he hasn't changed his mind about his opposition, even though it fell to him to work out the terms for floor debate.
"I think you can give all the blame in the world to the Democrats," he told reporters Tuesday, although he added that some moderate Republicans "feel very good about their efforts."
Republicans are also advancing companion legislation that includes tax breaks for small businesses designed to offset any economic damage caused by the proposed increase in the minimum wage.
The minimum wage hike itself would be attached to a separate measure. And to further mollify conservatives, the GOP leadership was hoping to add provisions that limit its effect. These include a proposal permitting an "opportunity wage" that would allow businesses to pay young, new employees the old rate of $4.25 an hour for their first 90 days of work.
A second proposal was likely to spark stronger opposition from Democrats, and perhaps the White House, as well. It would exempt businesses with income of $500,000 or less from the minimum wage requirements.
Supporters of the pay hike argue that the minimum wage is currently at a 40-year low in purchasing power. Opponents counter that an increase will cost jobs as business adjusts to higher labor costs.
Approval in the House would send the issue to the Senate, where the minimum wage struggle has also been waged fiercely. There, Democrats have been demanding a straightforward vote, only to be thwarted by Dole, who plans to resign from the Senate by June 11 to campaign full time.
House passage may help ease a Senate logjam, however, and lead to votes on the minimum wage as well as a temporary rollback in the federal gasoline tax that the House cleared on Tuesday.
Democrats have been trying for weeks to force the minimum wage increase to the House floor. The GOP leadership has managed to thwart their efforts by promising Republican moderates a vote on the issue this spring.