Rich Senators Defeat Minimum-Wage Hike
Congressional Pay Rises While Minimum Stays Same
Helen Thomas, Hearst White House columnist
POSTED: 6:12 pm EDT October 26, 2005
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U.S. senators -- who draw salaries of $162,100 a year and enjoy a raft of perks -- have rejected a minimum wage hike from $5.15 an hour to $6.25 for blue-collar workers.
Can you believe it?
The proposed increase was sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and turned down in the Senate by a vote of 51 against the boost and 49 in favor. Under a Senate agreement, it needed 60 votes to pass.
All the Democrats voted for the wage boost. All the negative votes were cast by Republicans.
Four Republicans voted for it. Three of the four are running for reelection and were probably worried about how voters would react if they knew that their well-heeled senators had turned down a pittance of an increase in the salaries of the lowest paid workers in the country.
The minimum wage was last increased in 1997.
Kennedy called the vote "absolutely unconscionable."
The lawmakers are hardly hurting. They get health insurance, life insurance, pensions, office expenses, ranging from $2 million on up, depending on the population of a state. The taxpayers also pay for their travel, telecommunications, stationery and mass mailings.
AFL-CIO president John Sweeney said the rejection was "outrageous and shocking."
Sweeney said minimum-wage workers "deserve a pay raise -- plain and simple -- no strings attached."
He said it is "appalling that the same right-wing leaders in Congress -- who have given themselves seven pay raises since the last minimum wage increase -- voted down the modest wage increase proposed by the Kennedy amendment."
During the same period since 1997, raises that the Senate has given itself bolstered senatorial pay by $28,000 a year, Kennedy said.
"If we are serious about helping hard-working families, we will give a fair raise to America's low-income workers without taking away essential protections," he added.
The Senate also killed an amendment proposed by Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., which also would have increased the minimum wage by $1.10 but included drastic measures such as wiping out the 40-hour work week, cutting overtime pay and weakening job safety and health protection.
At the same time, Enzi wanted to sweeten the pot for small business by providing tax and regulatory relief and to exempt small business from the Fair Labor Standards Act.
Kennedy likened the Enzi bill to an "anti-worker poison pill" and said it would "severely hurt millions and millions of workers."
According to the Census Bureau, there are 37 million Americans living in poverty, up 1 million in just a year.
Statements by President George W. Bush since the Gulf Coast hurricane disasters indicate he has a new awareness of the plight of the poor in this country. Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans have made the more affluent realize the hardships suffered by poor families.
When asked about the Kennedy measure, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Bush "believes that we should look at having a reasonable increase in the minimum wage ... But we need to make sure that, as we do that, that it is not a step that hurts small business or prices people out of the job market."
Bush has not weighed in with his own proposal for a pay hike.
The Senate's action comes at a worrisome time when motorists are paying much more for gasoline and heating bills are expected to rise by 56 percent this winter, according to Kennedy.
As a result, families will have to tighten their belts to pay for the basic necessities.
"It is shameful that in America today, the richest and most powerful nation on earth, nearly a fifth of all children go to bed hungry at night because their parents, many of whom are working full time at the minimum wage, still can't make ends meet," Kennedy said.
Kennedy has been in the forefront of the fight for increases in the minimum wage for years, and I don't expect him to throw in the towel now.
Congress still may have a chance to redeem itself in the eyes of the less fortunate -- before the 2006 elections.