Democrats Talk Up Minimum-Wage Increase

The new, higher minimum wage takes effect Tuesday, and House Democrats want everyone to know it, as impressions of the 110th Congress have been negative.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Today, there is a new federal minimum wage rate: $5.85 an hour. It's the first phase of a minimum wage hike that will eventually take the rate up to $7.25 an hour. This is the first piece of legislation passed by the new Democratic majority in Congress to take effect. That had party leaders cheering on Capitol Hill today, even as they are chagrinned to find Congress' standing with the public at historic lows.

And as NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports, Democrats still are trying to tangle with Iraq, health care, energy policy, environmental protection, and job security.

ANDREA SEABROOK: If you believe the polls, American citizens are fed up with Congress. In fact, approval ratings for Congress are as low now as they were for the Republican-controlled Congress last fall, before voters elected Democrats in droves. So, when the new leadership organized a slough of radio interviews today, they had one goal in mind: trumpet their success in raising the minimum wage.

Representative CIRO RODRIGUEZ (Democrat, Texas): Today's an important day. Today we raised the minimum wage from $5.15 to $5.85.

SEABROOK: This is Texas Democrat Ciro Rodriguez.

Rep. RODRIGUEZ: …going up and by 2009, it will be seven dollars and a quarter and that is significant. It's going to impact some 13 million Americans.

SEABROOK: More in Texas than in any other state, Rodriguez says. But all the cheering seems a little bit out of place, given the record-low approval ratings Congress is getting in the polls right now. I put the question to Democratic caucus head, Rahm Emanuel of Illinois.

Representative RAHM EMANUEL (Democrat, Illinois; Chairman, House Democratic caucus): If we're not going tout our success, it ain't going to be recognized. There's enough in the paper about failures. There's also should be room for accomplishments.

SEABROOK: Emanuel has his own take on why Americans disapprove. He says they're impatient with how slowly Congress is working.

Rep. EMANUEL: As you know, patience ain't my fortitude. I'm as impatient as the American people. The changes we want to bring about - they want. They want it faster than the pace that Congress is working on. And I agree with the American people.

SEABROOK: Whose fault is it they aren't happening fast?

Rep. EMANUEL: (Unintelligible) there's enough blame to go around. There's forces, special interest forces that are trying to stop this progress. Look, take the minimum wage. The Chamber of Commerce, National Federation of Independent Businesses opposed them for the last 10 years and opposed them even now, even though it got bipartisan support to get it done.

SEABROOK: For her part, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has her own idea about why Americans are fed up with Congress. One word: Iraq.

Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): They're sick of the war. Sick. Sick over this war and sick of this war, and they want change. Put me down as disapproving, too. I wish we had ended the war already myself.

SEABROOK: Sure, Pelosi says, there are other things, like energy independence and affordable health care.

Rep. PELOSI: But I believe that the overriding issue in the country is the war in Iraq and our failure to end it.

SEABROOK: Does it actually feel like a failure?

Rep. PELOSI: It's not a failure on our part. We're not - we don't have the signature. We have succeeded in changing the debate in the Congress of the United States and in the country on this war. We have succeeded in putting bills on the president's desk, which he has vetoed. We have to overcome a 60-vote hurdle in the United States Senate where they are obstructing the ability of the senators to have majority rule. But that's, you know, it's no use to complain about it. We just have to continue to make the fight. And the president is in the fifth year of his war. We're on the eighth month of our term of office, and we will not rest until this war is ended.

SEABROOK: You might ask Speaker Pelosi what does that mean, that the Congress won't rest until the war has ended.

Rep. PELOSI: This Congress will continue to legislatively judge the president's action. We will put people on record. We will send legislation to his desk.

SEABROOK: The speaker said she will hold votes this week on a bill to bar permanent U.S. military bases in Iraq and a measure to give National Guard and reservists at least as much time at home as they spend on deployment. And next week, the bill to fund the entire Department of Defense for next year comes to the House floor. Pelosi promises more pushing on Iraq in that bill, too.

Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, the Capitol.

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