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House Democrats Push Hard For Minimum Wage Increase

By Juliet Eilperin and Helen Dewar

Congressional Democrats plan this week to launch a big push to raise the minimum wage, forcing Republican leaders to come up with alternatives to avoid political damage or even defeat on the sensitive issue of helping low-income Americans.

“There’s an interest on both sides, Democrat and Republican, to get this done before we adjourn” for the year, said Rep. Jack Quinn, R-N.Y., a GOP moderate who has been working with Democrats to produce a bipartisan majority to pass the legislation.

The first test is likely to come Tuesday when Senate Democrats will try to use a pending bankruptcy bill to force votes on legislation backed by President Clinton and most Democratic lawmakers to raise the hourly federal wage floor by $1 to $6.15 over the next two years.

Democrats appear to have the votes needed to block a move by GOP leaders to keep the bankruptcy bill from being expanded to include a minimum-wage increase, gun controls or other proposals opposed by most Republicans. This could open the way for consideration of the wage initiative -- or another delay if GOP leaders decide to shelve the bankruptcy measure to avoid votes on unrelated issues.

If the Democrats’ proposal comes to a vote in the Senate, they are “on the cusp” of picking up enough Republicans to win a majority for passage, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said in an interview Friday.

In the House, moderate Republicans plan to appeal directly to Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., this week to schedule a vote on the legislation. And Minority Whip David E. Bonior, D-Mich., will seek signatures on a “discharge petition” under which a majority of House members could force votes even if the leadership continues to balk.

While Hastert is eager to dispose of the issue during a non-election year, he is far from enthusiastic at the prospect of enacting one of the Democrats’ top priorities. “I assume it’s probably going to come up,” Hastert said last week. But “for most folks, the tax cut probably means more than a minimum-wage increase,” he added.