MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
The House of Representatives is set to approve the first increase in the federal minimum wage in 10 years. The legislation was given a high priority by the new Democratic congressional leadership. It would raise the minimum wage from its current level - $5.15 an hour - to $7.25 an hour over two years.
But NPR's Brian Naylor reports it will be a while before minimum-wage workers will see anything more in their paychecks.
BRIAN NAYLOR: There are some half a million hourly workers who now make the minimum wage, according to the Labor Department. Democrat Robert Andrews of New Jersey said after years in which Congress approved tax cuts for the wealthy, and lawmakers gave themselves raises, that their day had finally arrived.
ROBERT ANDREWS: This is the day for the people who empty the bed pans, change the bed linens, sweep the floors and do the hardest work of America after a 10-year wait, even though they don't have to lobbyists here. Even though they don't have the political action committees here, this is their day.
NAYLOR: The House bill, HR-2, would raise the minimum wage to $5.85 an hour two months after President Bush signs it. It would go up to $6.55 an hour a year later, and reach $7.25 an hour a year after that.
Democrats lined up on the floor of the House to speak in favor of the politically popular measure. Among them were many of the party's newest members, including Hank Johnson of Georgia.
HANK JOHNSON: Increasing the minimum wage is necessary. It's a necessary step to help 38 million Americans living in poverty. Yet, the Congress for almost 10 years has failed to assist this population by increasing the minimum wage to a decent wage.
NAYLOR: Many Republicans also support raising the minimum wage, but for many others - such as Texas Republican Jeb Hensarling - having the government set wage rates violates their political philosophy.
JEB HENSARLING: In America, we can either have maximum opportunity or we can have minimum wages. We cannot have both. In the land of the free and a nation is great as ours, how can we deny people their maximum opportunity - their opportunity to secure the American dream? Well, apparently our Democrat colleagues can, because for thousands they will now replace the American dream of boundless career opportunities instead with the nightmare of welfare dependence.
NAYLOR: Other Republicans worried about the effect of a minimum-wage hike on small businesses, a key constituency of the GOP. Republican Kevin Brady, also from Texas.
KEVIN BRADY: And there's no doubt that the video-store owner in Texas or anywhere else with five workers - when faced with the $25,000 increase in the payroll and no chance that they're got rent that many more videos - are going to look whether they can afford all those workers.
NAYLOR: Democratic leaders in the House, knowing they had the numbers, offered what they called a clean bill and kept Republicans from attempting to amend the proposal. But in the Senate, it's a different story. There, Republicans could block the bill if they don't get the tax breaks that small businesses want to offset the effects of the higher payrolls. So Democrats say they'll be open to some benefits for small businesses.
The Senate could take up the minimum wage as soon as next week, and President Bush has indicated he would sign a measure that pairs a wage hike with tax breaks for business.
Tomorrow, as the House continues its first 100 hours agenda, lawmakers will take up a measure to allow federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, the subject of the president's only veto.
On Friday, the House wraps up its week with a measure to allow the government to negotiate with drug companies for lower Medicare prescription drug prices.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.