Today marks the 10-year anniversary since the last time Congress voted to raise the minimum wage -- the longest stretch between wage hikes since the first federal minimum wage law was put into effect in 1938. Senate Democrats marked the anniversary with a delicate political balancing act, announcing they would block a bill that raises the minimum wage because it also cuts the estate tax.
There have been a lot of changes for consumers in the past 10 years. Gas cost less than $2 a gallon back in '96. Today it's edged above $3 -- not to mention how much more a Big Mac or soda in a vending machine costs. Inflation has run wild. Just ask the economists and look at the home prices.
Majorities in both houses of Congress, including many moderate Republicans, say they support a wage hike. But still the country's poorest workers make just $5.15 an hour.
Earlier this year, Democratic leaders pledged to block a congressional pay raise (members have received more than $30,000 in cost of living raises since 1996) until their minimum wage requirements were met. But today Democrats in the Senate, long champions of a wage hike, held a press conference to clarify for the American public why they're planning to block the so-called trifecta bill that raises the minimum wage $2.10 to $7.25 for which they've worked so long and hard.
Here was their best effort: "Republicans are holding minimum wage workers hostage," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., at a press conference on Capitol Hill. "Holding them hostage to the most excessive tax breaks for the wealthiest individuals in America."
Though they support the wage hike, Democrats oppose a provision that adds a substantial tax cut for wealthy estate owners that the House attached to the most recent minimum wage bill.
Kennedy saved his best zinger for a written statement later in the day, saying, "Under this bill, Paris Hilton and her family will get $250 million, while the tipped workers in Hilton hotels will lose up to $5.60 an hour. That's un-American. Members of Congress raised their own pay -- no strings attached. Surely, common decency suggests that minimum wage workers deserve the same respect."
Hotel Worker Agrees
Following Kennedy to the podium today was Jeanelle Williams, a 28-year-old single mother from Baltimore, who said she used to work at Burger King but now works at a hotel. Williams still makes minimum wage and said Congress should be raising that and not cutting the estate tax .
"I vote 'yes' for minimum wage, raising minimum wage and uplifting my community and all other communities like mine. But I definitely vote no in giving people more than what they deserve," Williams said, referring to the estate tax reduction.
"You want family values?" asked Dick Durbin, D-Ill., pointing to Williams. "This is it."
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who pointed out that the minimum wage has not come close to keeping pace with inflation, renewed the Democratic pledge that any congressional pay raise will be blocked without a vote on the minimum wage hike. She clarified that the bill currently on the floor is unacceptable to Democrats.
Democrats call the estate tax provision a "poison pill." They also point to provisions in the bill that would supercede state minimum wage laws for workers who receive tips, essentially cutting their minimum wage back to the federal level.
While the Senate has voted nine times since 1996 to raise the minimum wage, Republican leaders have blocked the measures in the House. This year, bowing to almost 50 House Republicans who support a wage hike, the more conservative Republican leadership allowed a vote in the House but attached the estate tax cut, which Democrats claim is a boon to just over 8,000 super-rich Americans who have estates big enough to be hit by the estate tax .
Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., explained to reporters yesterday the odd sort of political balance he has struck by tying the wage hike to the tax cut for wealthy dead people.
"It gives us an opportunity to take, yes, the No. 1 issue, or as we've been told so many times, the No. 1 issue on the Democrats' agenda -- that is, increasing the minimum wage by 40 percent -- 40 percent -- over three years and linking that to the unfair death tax, which punishes, whether it's farmers or small-business people or individuals."
Somebody is Bluffing
Both Democrats and Republicans claim they won't leave this week without victory. But one party is going to have to blink because on Friday the smell of jet fumes famously starts wafting over the Potomac as lawmakers head to their home states (or choice vacation spots).
To block the trifecta, Democrats need 39 votes (Max Baucus is out for the rest of the week after his nephew was killed in action in Iraq). Republicans need 60. They will pick up several Democrats who support both the wage hike and the permanent estate tax reduction. Both Sen. Ben Nelson D-Neb., and Sen. Blanche Lincoln D-Ark., fit that mold, but neither has officially announced support for the trifecta.
Durbin, at today's event, would not say how many votes Democrats have to support blocking the trifecta.
Down the hall from the Democrats' press conference and at the exact same time (making it physically impossible for reporters to cover both events), Republican leaders held their own press conference, saying they will prevail on the minimum wage issue.
Even if Democrats are successful this year, Kennedy said the issue will not go away.
"The Day after this is signed into law, I'm going to start the battle for a new minimum wage rise because people will again be falling behind," he said.
He may have more luck next time, depending on how successfully Democrats are at reclaiming some of the balance of power in Congress come November.