Democrats, Republicans Fight Over Minimum Wage

Democratic efforts to raise the minimum wage have been thwarted in the Republican-controlled Senate. While a measure to increase the wage, which has been fixed at $5.15 an hour since 1997, received a majority vote, it didn't reach the 60 votes needed for it to be considered. Democrats, led by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, called the rejection an "outrage." But Republicans, who mostly opposed the bill, said raising the minimum wage would kill jobs.

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The Senate has rejected an effort led by Democrats to raise the federal minimum wage. It's currently $5.15 an hour.

It's been $5.15 since 1997 and as NPR's Brian Naylor reports, it appears likely to stay there a while longer.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

Fifty-two Senators voted in favor of the Democrat's proposal to raise the minimum wage, including eight Republicans, but backers needed 60 votes to overcome a procedural hurdle and couldn't quite get there despite the booming oratory of Senator Edward Kennedy. He reminded his colleagues that while members of Congress have seen their pay go up, minimum wage recipients have not.

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): Nine years they've waited, nine years they've waited, but not the members of the United States Senate. Thirty thousand dollars we've increased our salary and nine years we've refused to provide an increase to the men and women that are working on the lowest rung of the economic ladder. That is obscene, Mr. President.

NAYLOR: Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd pointed out that many of those earning the minimum wage were single mothers with children living well below the poverty line.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut): How does anyone expect today, a family, particularly a family with two or three children to live on a full-time salary of $10,700 a year? That's what you get with $5.15. I don't know of anyone who believes that you can meet your obligations of housing and food, of medical care you may need.

NAYLOR: The Democratic plan would have raised the minimum wage in three steps to $7.25 an hour by 2009, but Republicans like Georgia's Johnny Isakson argued that boosting the minimum wage would cost jobs and hurt small businesses.

Senator JOHNNY ISAKSON (Republican, Georgia): The debate we've heard this morning is a classic debate between two very different philosophies. One philosophy that believes in the marketplace, the competitive system that we have in the United States of America, competition and entrepreneurship. And secondly is the argument that says that government knows better and that top-down mandates worth.

NAYLOR: Republicans offered their own proposal that would have raised the minimum wage by $1.10 an hour and given small businesses tax breaks and some regulatory relief. Its sponsor, Wyoming's Mike Enzi, said minimum wage recipients would be better off looking for better paying jobs.

Senator MIKE ENZI (Republican, Wyoming): People need to think a little bit about more training or moving a little bit to get better jobs and get out of the minimum wage rut that will cause a spiral. As we increase the minimum wage, we also cause an upward spiral that eliminates the value of that minimum wage.

NAYLOR: Enzi's plan failed to get a simple majority. Last week in the House, a subcommittee attached a hike in the minimum wage to an appropriations bill, but House Republican leaders vow to strip the provision before it reaches the House floor.

In case there was any doubt about the politics at play in this issue, Senator Kennedy says raising the minimum wage will be one of the first orders of business if Democrats win control of the Senate this November.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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