If you're working behind the cash register at the Piggly Wiggly
or trimming hedges at Olde Orchard Estates, you won't be getting
a raise this Christmas. George W. Bush is coming to Washington.
In early December, once it became apparent that Bush would accede
to the presidency, Senate Republicans backed out on a deal to raise
the $5.15-an-hour minimum wage by $1 in exchange for $240 billion
in tax cuts. Bush campaigned on a plan to cut taxes by $1.3 trillion,
so his Senate allies decided to wait and go for the big money. "We
are operating under the consensus that we could do much better next
year," says a spokeswoman for Assistant Majority Leader Don Nickles
Will the checkout girls and the lawn boys do better, too? That
extra 40 bucks a week would have been enough to make payments on
a used car, or buy health insurance for a small family--or pay this
hard winter's heating bills, which are expected to be 50 percent
higher than last year's. Instead, a lot of folks may be singing
that old Merle Haggard tune, "If We Make It Through December."
If the Republicans hadn't played sextuple-or-nothing with the tax
cut proposal, more than 10 million workers might have seen their
paychecks edge a little farther away from the poverty line this
winter. Half those workers labor full time, and a third are raising
children. GOP senators "will be much less predisposed to support
a minimum-wage proposal with a Republican president coming in,"
predicts Jim Manley, press secretary for Massachusetts Democrat
Edward Kennedy, who sponsored the wage increase in the Senate.
The minimum wage is much more popular in the House, where some
Republicans have to go home to blue- collar districts. House Speaker
Dennis Hastert of Illinois negotiated the $1-an-hour increase with
President Clinton, and still wants to see it passed. "The majority
of the House is in favor of increasing the minimum wage," says John
Feehery, a spokesman for Hastert.
This gives hope to advocates of a wage increase. The public likes
the minimum wage, so an increase may be one of the few bills Democrats
and Republicans can agree on, says Larry Michel, an economist with
the Economic Policy Institute. "I suspect we'll see it passed,"
Michel adds. "It's been something that's been pretty hard for Republican
moderates to resist."
But so far, Bush has not been very friendly to low-wage workers.
In Texas, the minimum wage languishes at $3.35 an hour. (Some workers,
especially in agriculture, are not covered by the federal standard.)
But, Manley says, raising the minimum wage would also be a good
way for Bush to build goodwill with Democrats. "Kennedy feels that
if Governor Bush is serious about reaching across the aisle," Manley
says, "then a minimum-wage bill would be a good way to start."
You guys cleaning the grease trap at White Castle? Hang on until
spring--if you can.