Democratic leaders suffered a major defeat Monday when a bill to increase the federal minimum wage to $4.55 an hour died in the Senate, a victim of opponents' delaying tactics.
The measure, supported by organized labor and opposed by business groups, was taken off the floor after a week of highly partisan debate and two futile attempts to shut off the filibuster so that the bill could be brought to a vote.
Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) and his Republican counterpart, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, traded accusations on responsibility for the legislation's demise.
"Economic justice for workers on the lowest rung of the economic ladder is being held hostage by the political agenda on the other side of the aisle," Byrd said about the Republican senators. "Apparently, they wanted to kill the bill, and they have succeeded."
However, Dole said that the Democratic floor manager, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, refused to compromise and left the GOP no recourse but to mount a filibuster.
"This bill couldn't pass in the House and wasn't likely to pass the Senate unless it could be modified," Dole said. "Let's face it, minimum wage wasn't going anywhere, anyway. Labor leaders can cross this off their list . . . . I think it's a pretty good result."
Kennedy vowed that the measure would be resubmitted in the next session of Congress. "We will be back," Kennedy said. "We're going to be successful."
Bush Backs Increase
Democratic hopes for passage of the bill were buoyed recently when Vice President George Bush, the Republican presidential nominee, changed position and said that he favors an increase despite President Reagan's opposition to any change.
The minimum wage, last increased in 1981 to $3.35 an hour, now applies to about 5 million workers. Kennedy said that a $1.20 raise over three years would benefit 16 million workers who now earn less than the proposed $4.55 rate.
Backers of the measure said that, by compensating for increases in the cost of living, it would restore the buying power of the minimum pay rate to what it had been seven years ago. However, opponents charged that the proposal would be inflationary and would destroy jobs while doing little to help the working poor.
Republicans insisted on a 90-day "training wage" at 80% of the minimum rate for any new employee as a condition for backing an increase to $4 an hour. Kennedy rejected that, saying it would provide an inadequate wage.
Offered 150 Amendments
As part of their slowdown drive, Republicans offered more than 150 amendments to the Kennedy bill and voted twice against limitation of debate. Last week, the Republicans had said that they would prevent passage of the bill unless Democratic leaders permitted Senate votes on confirmation of 25 nominees to federal judgeships submitted by Reagan.
The bill's supporters last Friday mustered only 56 of the 60 votes needed to end debate and proceed to a vote on the measure.
Those blocking the vote "are not keeping faith with the American dream," Byrd said. "Obviously, not even George Bush could change that party's position."