House minimum wage bill passes; awaits Senate OK

WASHINGTON (AP) – The House voted Thursday to raise the hourly minimum wage from $3.35 to $4.55 by October 1991, rejecting a more modest increase proposed by President Bush and sending the partisan battle to the Senate.

The House adjourned for a week-long Easter recess after voting 248-171 for a bill that included compromises long resisted by its Democratic sponsors but still left the Democratic congressional leadership and the Republican President far apart on the issue.

Bush proposed raising the minimun wage to $4.25 an hour by 1992 provided newly hired employees could be paid a subminimum wage for six months. That plan was offered by Republicans as a substitute for the bill supported by the House leadership but was defeated 218-198, with more than 40 Democrats defecting to the GOP effort.

Bush has insisted this offer is his last and says he has the strength to veto minimum wage legislation he considers unacceptable. But the House sponsors refused to accommodate the president and the showdown now shifts to the Senate, where floor debate is scheduled early next month on a proposal to raise the hourly minimum wage to $4.65.

The Senate sponsor, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., hailed the House action and urged Bush to refrain from further veto threats until he sees the final measure, which is likely to undergo further changes.

“This is an execellent opportunity for Congress and the administration to demonstrate that they can work together and in doing so achieve a fair increase in the minimum wage and an honest training wage,” Kennedy said.

Before the House gave final passage to the bill, the chamber approved by a 240-179 vote a leadership-backed amendment cutting the bill’s target from $4.65 and hour to $4.55. The amendment added a provision allowing new entrants in the job market to be paid a subminimum wage for two months.

Debate centered on Republican assertions that too big an increase in the minimum wage would fuel inflation and force employers with marginal profits to slash hundreds of thousands of jobs.

Democrats disputed those arguments and said that by failing to increase the minimum wage for eight years Congress had forced the working poor to get by on a wage that has lost nearly 40 percent of its buying power.

“It isn’t enough but it certainly is better than nothing,” House Speaker Jim Wright said of the Democratic bill. “I’m asking you for this vote today for one simple reason. Vote for this bill because it is right, and you know it.”

The revisions represented significant retreats by the sponsors, who last year proposed raising the minimum wage to more than $5 by 1992 and long have opposed a two-tiered system allowing lower wages to be paid to newly hired workers.

But they agreed to the amendment because of defections by moderate-to-conservative Democrats, largely from Southern states, to the Republican fort to win passage of the Bush plan.

Forty-three Democrats defected anyway, and Republicans insisted the majority of Democrats eventually would have to accept the Bush proposal or see a ninth year pass without an increase in the minimum wage, now $3.35 an hour.