WASHINGTON - The House voted to raise the federal minimum wage Wednesday for the first time in a decade, to $7.25 an hour, as majority Democrats marched briskly through their 100-hour agenda at the dawn of a new Congress.
Ebullient Democrats stood and cheered as the final vote - 315-116 - was announced.
"For 10 years the lowest-paid Americans have been frozen out," said Rep. George Miller of California, berating Republicans who had refused for years to allow a vote on a stand-alone minimum wage increase.
"The little guy is not going to be forgotten any longer," said Rep. Bill Pascrell, whose district includes gritty Paterson, N.J. He estimated the increase would mean an additional $4,400 a year for a family of three.
"The small business men we are trying to help for the most part are little guys," countered Rep. Howard McKeon, R-Calif. He said Republicans favor an alternative coupling a minimum wage increase with tax breaks for small businesses.
Other Republicans argued that raising the minimum wage would hurt employment chances for the lowest-paid workers.
The legislation, which now goes to the Senate, would raise the current $5.15 minimum to $5.85 effective 60 days after the measure became law. The minimum would go to $6.55 a year later and $7.25 a year after that.
The White House issued a statement of opposition to the legislation as drafted. It called for the increase to be accompanied by "tax and regulatory relief to help small businesses stay competitive and to help the economy keep growing."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has already signaled that Democrats will accept pro-business changes. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told reporters that he and other lawmakers are working on between $8 billion and $10 billion in relief over ten years.
On another often-controversial topic Wednesday, this time in contrast to the partisan debate on the wage legislation, one of the House's most cherished traditions fell without a struggle.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., issued an order banning smoking in an ornate lobby just off the House chamber where tobacco smoke and political intrigue have coexisted for generations.
"We can no longer risk the health of colleagues, staff, pages, reporters and others who pass through the Speaker's Lobby each day," Pelosi said, and by midafternoon, the ashtrays were gone. Not so a portrait of John Nance Garner, cigar in hand, one of many past House speakers whose likenesses preside over the room.
The minimum wage bill is the second of six measures that Democrats intend to pass in the first two weeks of the new Congress. Legislation aimed at making the nation safer from terrorist attacks passed easily on Wednesday. The agenda for Thursday includes a measure to permit expanded federally funded embryonic stem cell research, a bill Bush has threatened to veto.
On Friday, the House is expected to pass legislation directing the administration to negotiate with drug companies for lower prices on prescription drugs for Medicare recipients. Republicans said Wednesday they believed Bush would veto that bill, as well, if it reached his desk as drafted.
Democrats have long claimed the measure would result in significant savings, but an estimate by congressional budget analysts cast doubt on those claims. "We anticipate that the (administration) would be unable to negotiate prices across a broad range of ... drugs that are more favorable than those obtained" under current law, said the letter from the Congressional Budget Office.
The remaining measures on the early Democratic agenda would cut the interest rate on student loans and raise taxes on energy companies to pay for an effort to reduce dependence on foreign oil.
Less than a week after Congress convened under Democratic control, the minimum wage bill offered an early challenge of the party's ability to maneuver in an environment shaped by friendly outside interest groups as well as the White House and Republicans who hold 49 votes in the 100-member Senate.
House Democrats insisted that the bill pass without any relief for small businesses, and the AFL-CIO has lobbied Senate Democrats to go along. Several officials said the issue flared in this week's closed-door caucus of the rank and file, when some liberals challenged Baucus and questioned a strategy that called for early concessions to Republicans.
In response, Reid said Democrats did not have 60 votes that would be needed to pass a stand-alone minimum wage increase over a Republican filibuster, these officials added.
The final measure will be worked out in negotiations between the two houses, and it is likely that Pelosi and House Democrats will ultimately have to accept tax breaks for businesses if they are to get Bush's signature on one of their top priorities.
Under budget rules enacted last week, though, no tax legislation that clears the House can increase the deficit - meaning that the minimum wage bill would have to contain provisions to offset the costs of the tax cuts.
Inflation has eroded the minimum wage's buying power to the lowest level in about 50 years in the time since the last increase took effect. According to Labor Department statistics, 479,000 workers paid by the hour earned exactly $5.15 in 2005, the most recent estimate available. They tend to be under 25 and never married, and more likely to be women, minorities and part-time workers.
More than two dozen states and the District of Columbia have minimum wages higher than the federal level. The political potency of the issue was evident last November, when proposals to raise statewide minimums passed in all six states where they came to a vote.