The Senate floor fight over how high to raise the minimum wage - and whether it will help the poor - began Thursday with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, working as President Bush's point man to fight Democratic proposals.
A Senate bill sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., seeks to raise the minimum wage from $3.35 an hour to $4.65 an hour over a three-year period.The Senate is expected to vote during the course of the debate whether to adopt Bush's proposal to raise the minimum wage to just $4.25 an hour and allow a "training wage" of $3.35 an hour for the first six months on the job.
The House last month passed a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $4.55 an hour over three years and allow a training wage for only two months.
Bush has vowed to veto any increase over $4.25 an hour and any increase without a training wage. Such a veto would likely avoid a two-thirds vote to overturn it because more than a third of the senators have written Bush supporting his stand.
The debate Thursday was full of charts, figures and sarcastic jokes between Kennedy and Hatch, and reminiscent of debates six months ago on the same topic. A filibuster by Hatch and other Republicans killed the proposal then.
Kennedy led off the debate Thursday saying, "The minimum wage has not increased one cent since January 1981 - but consumer prices have increased 40 percent. Over 14 million of our nation's lowest paid workers have patiently awaited our action. They should wait no longer."
But Hatch said raising the minimum wage too high would actually hurt the poor by destroying many of their jobs and raising the cost of products in ways that hurt the poor. He said it will also hurt some regions more than others.
Hatch quoted five private and governmental studies that predict raising the wage to $4.65 will destroy between 200,000 and 800,000 jobs nationwide as employers decide they cannot afford the higher labor costs.
The South and Midwest, where more jobs are at minimum-wage levels, would be most hard-hit. Hatch noted that Democrats have exempted Puerto Rico from minimum wage provisions but will not do that for other areas claiming impacts elsewhere will be negligible.
Hatch said that is "like saying that Utah suffers the same as Gulf Coast states from a hurricane."
Hatch said many of the jobs destroyed by the higher minimum wage are the ones needed by young people to begin with to work into higher positions. He said many could be saved by allowing a training wage.
"I worked my way through school as a a janitor. Last year . . . my colleague from Massachusetts joked about that. He said surely I did not need a three- or six-month training wage.
"Well, I will say to my friend from Massachusetts that if I needed or wanted that job - and I certainly did at the time - and a special wage for six months would have given the employer the incentive to hire me, then I did need a training wage."
Kennedy disagrees that raising the minimum wage will increase unemployment. "I point to the historical record. Six times economists have predicted higher unemployment if the minimum is increased. Six times we have increased it, and six times the nation has prospered."
Hatch said increasing wages will also increase the cost of goods.
"Who in our society is least able to afford price increases? The working poor, that's who. A few cents rise in the price of gasoline or groceries matters more to the person earning $5 an hour than it does to the person earning $20," he said.