Monday, September 04, 2006

Senate Democrats Must Stay in Frist's Face on Minimum Wage Issue

Most people don’t know it but, for all practical purposes, the United States Senate is almost done with regular business for all of 2006. It's true. The Senate returns tomorrow and will have 32 calendar days until the scheduled October 6 end of the 109th Congress, which means, at most, there will be 24 business days with which to get anything done.

So the political question is, how will each side of the aisle conduct business in the short time left in this legislative session and what issues would each like voters to think about when they vote in the midterm elections? The Senate agenda is scheduled to focus immediately on H.R. 5631, the Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2007 Appropriations Bill and, depending on the number of amendments considered, that should take at least a week -- and maybe two -- of the remainder of the session.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) made it clear before the August recess that he intends to also pursue confirmation for more of George W. Bush's judicial nominees and a full Senate vote on John Bolton as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. (Bolton was slipped in the back door by Bush via a recess appointment last year when it was clear to the White House that Bolton would not be confirmed by the Senate.) Frist has further declared his desire to work on small-business health plans and, if time remains, to go after what truly keeps most Americans awake at night -- the scourge of Internet gambling.

"As it is now, this industry threatens to undermine the quality of life of millions of Americans by bringing an addictive behavior right into our living rooms," said Frist in an August 3 statement. "It's got to stop."

Wow. I'm sure our troops stuck in a civil war in Iraq will be glad Frist and the Republicans are all over that one.

Democrats need to jump on this typically-goofy priority on the Republicans' part and immediately bring the issue of the minimum wage right back to the Senate floor and into Frist's face. If you remember, the GOP pulled one of the most cynical legislative stunts in recent memory before the August recess, when it attached a phony minimum wage hike to their attempt to repeal the Estate Tax -- also known as the "Paris Hilton tax" -- in the hope that Senate Democrats would be forced to give another tax cut to the rich or appear to vote against the first minimum wage increase in a decade. The bill had passed the House of Representatives a week earlier but died in the Senate on August 3 without even making it to a full vote.

So now's the time for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to invoke the same minimum wage increase that Democrats have been trying to pass for the entire 109th Congress, and get it right back on the Senate agenda in the time remaining this year. Reid should bring it as a standalone bill or as an amendment to the Defense Appropriations bill -- whatever it takes.

I understand this is easier said than done as Frist -- or is it Bush, Cheney and Karl Rove? -- ultimately decides what comes to the Senate floor and not the Minority Leader.

But this should be very easy for Frist to agree to at this point. After all, Republicans spent a lot of time in late July and early August trying to convince working families that they care about them and that they suddenly give a damn about the lot of low-income Americans.

"The current Federal minimum wage just isn't sufficient," said Pete Domenici (R-NM) on the Senate floor on August 3, in arguing for a repeal of the Estate Tax and presumably, truly supporting a minimum wage hike. "Now is the time to raise the minimum wage. It's time to give low-wage workers a raise."

Domenici's colleague, Norm Coleman (R-MN), agreed saying in an August 3 statement, "It has been far too long since the last increase in the minimum wage, which is why I strongly support an increase to help raise the living standard of America’s hardworking families."

And on and on it went…

So Harry Reid needs to take them at their word, reintroduce the standalone, Democratic bill to raise the minimum wage and do it as soon as the Senate goes back into session tomorrow.

This would be the same legislation that has been pushed so hard by Ted Kennedy (D-MA) for the last 18 months, only to see it shot down by Senate Republicans on three straight roll call votes. Bills to raise the minimum wage, S.Amdt. 44, S.Amdt. 2063 and S.Amdt. 4322 were all killed by Senate Republicans by yea-nay votes of 46-49 (March, 2005), 47-51 (October, 2005) and 46-52 (June, 2006), respectively.

Of course, those bills were just straight increases in the minimum wage and not a huge gift to the National Restaurant Association like the latest GOP sham. The Republicans' wage "increase" that was tossed in with the Paris-Hilton tax cut, contained a provision that would have forced seven states that allow tipped workers to receive the full minimum wage before tips to revert to a $2.13 per hour wage and then count workers' tips toward their employer's full minimum wage requirement.

This was ugly stuff that would have resulted in a pay cut for millions of tip-earning workers -- but , hey, that's all in the past.

Effective early August, we know we're all finally on the same page. The vast majority of the American people believe it's way past time for
an increase in the minimum wage and, based on the newfound heart and enthusiasm of Senate Republicans, this should be a vote that takes no more than a few hours off the Senate clock.

So Minority Leader Reid and Kennedy need to march right in to Bill Frist's office first thing tomorrow morning, celebrate this rare instance of total agreement between the two parties and get a no-strings-attached minimum wage bill passed before the Senate closes for business in a month.

Moving swiftly on this would make voters happy with both political parties, amount to a big win for working families and should now be incredibly easy -- unless, of course, the GOP's gesture of goodwill to American workers in August was just a cynical political ploy.

But that couldn’t be the case -- could it?