WASHINGTON -- The House Thursday night voted for the first increase in the minimum wage in four years and coupled the raise with a reduction in estate taxes and assorted breaks for America's business community.
Under the plan approved by a 282 to 143 vote, the minimum wage will rise by a dollar an hour -- to $6.15 -- over the next two years. Republican leaders vigorously opposed the measure on philosophical grounds but were powerless to stop it -- or spread out the increase over three years -- because of strong pressure from Democrats and moderate Republicans.
Republicans, however, did push through several sweeteners for business that congressional analysts estimate will cost $122 billion over the next 10 years. Two-thirds of the cost comes from reducing inheritance tax rates, while the legislation also provides deductions for self-employed people to buy health insurance and increases the amount people can put into tax-favored retirement accounts. The tax measure was approved 257 to 169.
''This is a balanced bill which helps the working poor while helping the employers who hire them,'' said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
GOP lawmakers were confident that they could reconcile their plan with comparable Senate language in a bankruptcy bill, which would raise the minimum wage by a dollar over three years and cut taxes by a smaller amount. Less certain is agreement with the White House, which has threatened a veto because of the size of the tax cuts -- a plan the administration says is fiscally irresponsible.
House Republicans also said they hope that by taking care of the minimum wage question relatively early this year, they would dispose of an issue that Democrats have used to great political effect in the past. The issue appeals strongly to independent voters, and with control of the House at stake in the November elections, GOP leaders were concerned that a failure to vote on the issue this year could put some northeastern moderates in political jeopardy.
''The minimum wage must be raised, but not with a bill that stacks the deck against America's working families,'' President Clinton said in a statement after the vote. ''Once again, Republicans ... have demonstrated that they would rather fight for special interests than give working families the raise they deserve.''
Forty-two Republicans joined with 203 Democrats in voting to enact the raise over two years, rather than three.
According to government estimates, about 10 million Americans earn between $5.15 and $6.15 an hour. Backers of the wage increase argue it will help lift these workers out of poverty, while opponents say the hike will have an inflationary effect by putting pressure on all hourly wages.
Even under fire from the Democrats, GOP leaders spent the better part of the day quelling a conservative rebellion that threatened to scuttle the entire enterprise. More than two dozen Republicans complained that their leaders did not actively support a provision guaranteeing that states would have the right to opt out of the dollar increase.
''Conservatives aren't happy they're bringing up the bill at all,'' said Rep. David M. McIntosh, R-Ind., one of a number of GOP lawmakers who initially planned to defect on a key procedural vote.
Hastert and his top deputies spent an hour with the conservatives in the Capitol hideaway office of House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.
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