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DEMOS GET PUSHED INTO A WIN-LOSE CORNER

House Democrats finally get their vote to raise the minimum wage but find themselves opposed to a Republican bill because it contains large exemptions for small businesses.

Joining Democrats in what has come to be a key election-year issue, President Clinton said he would veto the legislation if it contains language "to eliminate the minimum wage and wage protections for millions of workers."Republicans insisted the minimum wage and overtime exemptions for small businesses are needed to offset the rising costs of a wage increase. Republicans say the increase will result in hundreds of thousands of entry-level workers being laid off.

Democrats were faced with the dilemma of voting for the minimum wage increase they have sought for months, but then voting against the overall bill. Separate roll calls were planned for the minimum wage increase and the overall legislation.

"We are not going to vote for a minimum wage bill that repeals the minimum wage for 10 million people," said House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri.

Before getting to that vote, supporters defeated, 267-161, a procedural challenge by opponents of the increase. They said that it violated federal rules against imposing unfunded mandates on local governments and the private sector.

The bill would raise the current minimum wage of $4.25 an hour to $4.75 on July 1 and to $5.15 a year later.

"It is important that we relieve small business of some of the expense in order to pay for that minimum wage increase, and that is exactly what this bill does," said Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., said he doubted Clinton would follow through on his veto threat. The purpose behind several GOP provisions, Gingrich said, was to help "small business and help create jobs for the very people who most need that very first job."

Republicans claim that the higher wage could force small firms to eliminate hundreds of thousands of entry-level jobs.

But Democrats said their vote for a wage increase had been tainted by an amendment offered by Rep. William Goodling, R-Pa., that would exempt from provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act firms with annual gross sales of less than $500,000 that handle products that cross state lines.

"This amendment will take off anywhere between 3 and 10 million people from coverage of the minimum wage," said House Democratic Whip David Bonior, D-Mich. "This is a terrible, terrible backwards step."