Fast Bush Veto Forces New Look at Wage Bill

Times Staff Writer

President Bush, in a move that threw Democrats off balance, abruptly vetoed the $4.55-an-hour minimum wage bill Tuesday, sending Democratic congressional leaders scurrying to work out a strategy on how to respond to the President’s action.

The veto, Bush’s first since he took office last Jan. 20, came only 16 minutes after the White House received the legislation from Congress--almost certainly a record in presidential annals.

The President signed the veto aboard Air Force One and telephoned the White House legislative clerk just moments before Democrats had scheduled a press conference announcing that the bill had gone to Bush’s desk. Bush was in Wyoming on Tuesday to deliver a speech on the environment.


The swiftness of the veto clearly took Democratic leaders aback. “It’s the quickest veto of any bill in my memory,” said House Speaker Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.). “We’ll do our very best to override” it.

House leaders immediately scheduled a vote for today in a bid to overturn the veto, but the effort seemed only symbolic; Democratic managers in both houses concede that they do not have the two-thirds majorities needed to override Bush’s decision.

Instead, Democratic strategists said they plan to push through new legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage only to $4.25 an hour--the maximum Bush has said he would accept--instead of the $4.55 an hour prescribed in Tuesday’s bill.

Bush called the proposed $4.55-an-hour minimum “excessive” and warned that it would “stifle the creation of job opportunities” and exacerbate inflation. The current federal minimum wage, $3.35 an hour, has been in effect since 1981.

The battle over the minimum wage bill has become one of the primary political spectacles between the two parties this year. Democrats, seeking to make Bush seem to be “against the poor,” have defied his warnings that he would veto an increase to $4.55 an hour.

At the same time, White House strategists have contended that the President must draw the line now on the minimum wage issue or Democrats would be emboldened to challenge him later with more expensive proposals on other social issues, such as government-subsidized child-care expenses.


Most analysts contend that, with unemployment low and labor in short supply, the measure would have little economic impact. Only a few million workers of the 99 million now in the work force actually earn the federal minimum.

Moreover, in the eight years since the last increase in the federal minimum wage, many states--including California--have enacted state minimums that are higher than the federal. California’s state minimum wage, for example, already is $4.25 an hour.

Bush has been threatening a veto for weeks, and the White House, confident that Democrats did not have the votes for an override, were ready and waiting when the bill left the Capitol for the White House on Tuesday morning.

Briefing reporters aboard Air Force One early Tuesday, White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu noted that “the Democrats are having some kind of circus up there this afternoon,” referring to their scheduled press conference.

Sununu predicted that the minimum wage bill would “come to the White House, hit the wall and bounce back like a rubber ball.” A few hours later, White House officials were announcing breezily to reporters that the veto message had been sent.

As has been his custom throughout the battle, Bush again offered to sign minimum wage legislation that meets his requirements. These include no more than $4.25 an hour and a lower minimum wage for new entrants into the work force.

Tax Credit Hike

And he reiterated in his message that if Congress “remains unwilling to support this job-saving approach”--the lower minimum and an entry-level wage--he would consider a modest increase in the current earned income tax credit, which provides cash subsidies to poor families whose heads of household hold jobs. He contended that a higher minimum wage would prompt some businesses to avoid creating new jobs, harming low-income people seeking work.

Still, it was not immediately clear whether the new version of the legislation now being contemplated by Democrats would satisfy the Administration, despite the new, more modest $4.25-an-hour level.

Aides to Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said the measure most likely would call for the new $4.25 minimum in two years, rather than the three that Bush is seeking, and may include some other differences as well.

Responding to Bush’s veto, Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell (D-Me.) said the action “demonstrates disdain for poor working people of this country.” Mitchell also noted that Bush is proposing to reduce capital gains taxes for the rich.

“To those who have much, we must give more; to those who have little, we must do nothing,” Mitchell said, mocking Bush’s policies. “Those are the wrong priorities,” he asserted.

And Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Labor Committee, pledged that “there will be an increase in the minimum wage--if not now, soon.”

The bill that Bush vetoed passed 63 to 37 in the Senate and 247 to 172 in the House--both well short of the two-thirds majority needed for an override.

Staff writers William J. Eaton in Washington and Paul Houston with the President aboard Air Force One contributed to this story.

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