House Democrats launched the 110th Congress by outlining six priorities that they vow to pass within the first 100 legislative hours of the session. Raising the minimum wage was near the top. House members voted 315 to 116 to raise the federal wage floor by $2.10 over two years.
Democrats are using their 233-202 majority in the House, and control of the rules over how legislation is debated, to push through their initial agenda without committee hearings or allowing Republicans to offer alternatives on the House floor. They say the issues have been thoroughly parsed in previous sessions of Congress.
Momentum for increasing the minimum wage, however, is likely to slow in the Senate, where Democrats cling to a 51-49 majority. Under Senate rules, it takes 60 votes to end debate and move to final passage of legislation.
Senate Republicans have indicated that they want to add a package of small-business tax breaks and regulatory relief to the minimum wage bill. President Bush has called for similar conditions.
House Democrats and their labor allies decry any amendments. They are advocating what they call a "clean" minimum wage bill.
How the split will affect a House-Senate conference committee on the legislation is not yet clear. But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, said on January 5 that he is willing to accommodate his Republican colleagues' wishes.
"If it takes adding small-business tax cuts to have a minimum wage increase, we're going to do that," he said at a press conference at the Library of Congress. "A one-party town doesn't work. We're going to accomplish what is possible."
After the event, Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Illinois, acknowledged that Senate deliberation may be more measured than the quick House action.
"The Senate always takes a little more time," he says.
The Senate offers opportunities—through possible hearings and floor amendments—for business interest groups to make the minimum wage increase more palatable to their memberships.
"We're a long way from making law," says Bruce Josten, executive vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In the meantime, Democrats are portraying the minimum wage hike as a move to bolster the middle class. They cite a study by the Economic Policy Institute that says 79 percent of the people who would benefit are adults over the age of 20, more than half of whom work full time.
"Americans who work hard to earn an honest living should not be relegated to poverty," House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, said in a statement. "This is an issue of fairness, and soon workers will receive the long-overdue raise they have earned."
Skeptics argue that businesses may have to cut hiring—especially of low-skilled workers just entering the labor market—in order to cover the costs of higher wages.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that 1.9 million Americans work for wages at or below the minimum, composing 2.5 percent of all hourly paid workers. Half of workers earning $5.15 or less are younger than 25, and one-quarter are between 16 and 19.
The minimum wage in many states is higher than the federal floor. Voters in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio approved wage increases in the November elections.