Congress and the GOP's Big Gambit

Let's get this straight. Most of the Republicans in the Senate are expected to vote this week to raise the minimum wage by two bucks an hour, but they probably won't succeed because most of the Democrats will be voting no.

What's wrong with this picture? The minimum wage has been a party-line division vote for most of the past century. It's not likely the two parties could have swapped positions on it overnight.

So there must be more to it. And, indeed, there is. The Republicans are voting for the wage boost (from the current $5.15 to $7.25 over three years) because it's attached to a permanent reduction in the estate tax. That tax cut would exempt individuals' estates up to $5 million (twice that for couples) and ease the bite on larger fortunes as well.

Neither the wage boost nor the tax cut could pass on its own. Both sides have tried, both have failed. Conservatives have long disliked or distrusted the minimum wage, suspecting that it fuels inflation, discourages job creation and bolsters overseas competition. In this era of Republican control in Congress, there has not been a minimum-wage increase in nine years.

Liberals, for their part, are just as adamantly against cutting the estate tax. Easily the most progressive of all federal taxes, it hits only those who are leaving large sums to their heirs and it produces substantial revenues to relieve other taxpayers. Liberals don't have a problem with taxing assets at the point of inheritance that were taxed when earned. So while the GOP has managed to trim the tax it calls the "death tax," efforts to abolish it entirely have fallen short.

Given all this, suddenly seeing these two hot-button controversies subsumed in a single bill and poised on the brink of enactment is a sight to behold with wonderment — even disbelief.

How did such a deal go down? Perhaps it sprang from long hours of thoughtful, bipartisan collaboration and compromise. Perhaps the partisans favoring each measure found it in their hearts to join hands with the partisans of the other. On the other hand, maybe not.

In the House, which gave its blessing to this union in the wee hours of last Saturday morning, compromise was not the order of the day. The debate was an exercise in rubbing salt in wounds, with spokesmen on both sides angrily accusing the other of hypocrisy.

"I know why you're mad," exulted Republican Zach Wamp of Tennessee. "You've seen us really outfox you."

Among those leering at the Democrats' discomfort was Bill Thomas of California, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, who helped put the package together. Thomas was also in a position to roll in a series of highly popular tax measures known as "extensions" or "extenders." These provisions include research credits for business and the option of deducting either state income tax or sales tax.

Popular as they are, extenders regularly expire, giving Congress the chance to renew them and get credit for doing so — while also helping lubricate the passage of other legislation along the way.

That's why Thomas wanted to append the extenders to his wage-and-estate gambit. And it was why some powerful Senate Republicans were angry at him, having planned to use the extenders to help enact an entirely separate bill overhauling the private pension system.

One Thomas ally has been Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Both men have devoted much of their time in Congress to attacking the estate tax. Both are retiring at the end of this year and both know that after this week and a few weeks in September, this Congress is pretty much finished. So why not try one last Hail Mary pass?

The lash-up of minimum wage and estate tax passed the House in that midnight session with most Republicans on board and most Democrats opposed. Now it needs 60 votes under Senate rules to reach the desk of President Bush. If Frist can bring all 55 of his Republican votes to bear — some protesting and kicking and screaming, to be sure — he will need just five Democrats.

There are usually a least a few Democrats who support cutting the estate tax on principle. It's possible the chance to effect a minimum wage hike will lure over a few more.

And even if the deal ultimately fails, Thomas and Frist and Company can always say it was mainly the Democrats who bailed out on a chance for a minimum-wage increase. And that should help some Republicans dodge the punch on the minimum-wage issue this fall.

Lawmaking: It's not for those who insist on consistency, or a straight line between two points.

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