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Minimum Wage Fight Prompts Democratic Theatrics

April 25, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Playing the role of a character from a Charles Dickens novel, Democratic Rep. Pat Williams held a small bowl skyward, as though an orphan begging piteously for food.

``Please, Mr. Gingrich, may I have more?″ the Montana Democrat pleaded as his Democratic colleagues laughed in appreciation.

Williams’ brief mockery, at a news conference Wednesday, was merely the latest in a series of Democratic attempts to shame _ or muscle _ Gingrich and the GOP majority into scheduling a vote this year on a proposed increase in the minimum wage.

``It is a moral issue,″ Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said a few moments earlier in a more conventional political attack. ``Raising the minimum wage is the right thing to do.″

Despite the Democratic drumbeat _ due to be renewed today by Vice President Al Gore and others _ Gingrich and Majority Leader Dick Armey served notice they won’t yield.

``Big government, high taxes and excessive red tape are what stand between working Americans and better jobs and a higher standard of living,″ they said in a written statement. ``Republicans know that low-wage workers and their families suffer most from the destructive policies of big government.″

Gingrich and Armey said they would advance their own legislation, probably this summer, that would ``increase take-home pay, stimulate economic growth and raise the standard of living of hard-working American families.″

They said the measure may include a tax cut, including the $500-per-child tax credit the party has long advocated; a capital gains tax cut; and possibly a government subsidy for some workers currently at the $4.25-an-hour minimum wage. The subsidy would be financed by cutting off the Earned Income Tax Credit to the working poor who don’t have children.

Other measures might include steps to expand access to health care and pensions; ``end abusive lawsuits″; and a measure stiffening enforcement of a Supreme Court ruling designed to prevent unions from spending compulsory dues on political campaigns.

The list made no mention of the minimum wage measure. Asked afterward, Armey said ``it’s not my intention″ to bring the minimum wage hike to the floor.

The Texas Republican, a former economics professor, has long been an unyielding foe of increasing the minimum wage, saying a hike would cost jobs for people who need them the most.

But the statement marked a hardening of Gingrich’s position. Last week, the Georgia Republican said he didn’t know whether the issue would come to the floor, and noted that he had supported the last increase, in 1989.

Several GOP lawmakers and aides in the House, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that with their statement, Gingrich and Armey were hoping to ease nervousness among GOP lawmakers while they develop a strategy to blunt the Democrats’ politically appealing demand for an increase in the minimum wage.

The issue has exploded in Congress this spring, with Democrats pressing for a vote on a daily basis in the House and Senate.

The current minimum wage is $4.25 an hour, a level that supporters say will soon be at a 40-year low in purchasing power. Democrats are calling for a 90-cent-an-hour increase, phased in over two years.

Moderate House Republicans broke ranks last week and called for a $1 increase over 15 months. The moderates hold the balance of power in the House on the issue. If they decide to vote with the Democrats, they could force the issue to the floor.

In the Senate, Democrats led by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., are pressing for a vote. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, certain to be the GOP presidential nominee this fall, thus far has maneuvered to avoid it.

Dole indicated earlier this week he’d provide for a vote, although with conditions attached that organized labor would probably oppose.

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