WASHINGTON -- Senate proposals to raise the minimum wage were rejected yesterday, making it unlikely that the lowest allowable wage, $5.15 an hour since 1997, will rise in the foreseeable future.
A labor-backed measure by Senator Edward Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, would have raised the minimum to $6.25 over an 18-month period. A Republican counterproposal would have combined the same $1.10 increase with various breaks and exemptions for small businesses.
The Kennedy amendment to a spending bill went down 51 to 47, and the GOP alternative 57 to 42. Under a Senate agreement, 60 votes were needed for approval.
Kennedy said Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the depth of poverty in the country. Making minimum wage, a single parent with two children earns $10,700 a year, $4,500 below the poverty line.
He said it was ''absolutely unconscionable" that in the same period that Congress has denied a minimum wage increase, lawmakers have voted themselves seven pay raises worth $28,000.
But Republican opponents, echoing the arguments of business groups, said higher minimum wages can work against the poor if they force small businesses to cut payrolls or go out of business.
''Mandated hikes in the minimum wage do not cure poverty and they clearly do not create jobs," said Senator Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican who offered the Republican alternative.
Kennedy noted after the vote that three of the four Republicans that supported his amendment -- Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, Mike DeWine of Ohio, and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island -- are up for reelection next year. ''Candidates that are out campaigning know the power of this issue," he said. The fourth Republican supporting Kennedy was Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan, asked yesterday about Kennedy's measure, said President Bush ''believes that we should look at having a reasonable increase in the minimum wage. . . . But we need to make sure that, as we do that, that it is not a step that hurts small business or prices people out of the job market."
Enzi's proposal would provide tax and regulatory relief for small business, permit tips to be credited in complying with minimum wage hikes, and expand the small business exemption from the Fair Labor Standards Act.
It also would have put into law a ''flextime" system, opposed by organized labor as an assault on overtime pay, under which workers could work more in one week and take time off the next.
Both proposals, amendments to a fiscal 2006 spending bill, needed 60 votes to pass.
Kennedy, who has campaigned relentlessly for a minimum wage increase, picked up one vote from the 46 votes for a similar measure in March. On Tuesday he modified his proposal, which had called for a $2.15 increase, in hopes of attracting more Republicans.
The first minimum wage of 25 cents an hour was enacted under President Roosevelt in 1938. Congress has since voted eight times to increase it, including under Republican presidents Eisenhower, Ford and George H.W. Bush.
Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have minimum wages higher than the national level.