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Bill linking minimum wage, estate tax faces fight in Senate

Democrats say they're outraged by GOP maneuver

WASHINGTON -- House Republicans have pushed through a controversial bill linking a minimum-wage increase to a package of tax cuts, but Senate Democrats are strongly opposed to a provision that would cut estate taxes. The standoff could become an issue in the fall elections.

The hastily crafted measure was approved early yesterday morning, just before representatives adjourned for a summer campaign break. The bill is expected to die in the Senate, a prospect that several Republican lawmakers acknowledged even as they cast votes.

The bill's 11th-hour path to the floor of the House of Representatives highlighted the parties' scramble to stake out positions in advance of the fall election campaign.

In the end, the measure passed, 230 to 180, with 34 Democrats joining the Republican majority.

Democrats have been pushing for years for a provision that would raise the minimum wage. And with congressional elections barely three months away, Democratic strategists were preparing to use the issue this fall in their bid to wrest control of Congress from the GOP.

Facing the prospect that they would be portrayed as obstacles on an issue popular with many voters, nearly 50 mostly moderate Republicans last week appealed to their leaders to act.

The group threatened to vote against adjourning for the August recess until their party's leaders agreed to give them a chance to vote on a minimum-wage increase.

On Friday afternoon, GOP House leaders relented. They announced they had tacked it onto a 180-page bill that would cut the estate tax and extend a host of temporary tax cuts -- moves that Senate Democrats have made clear they would block through a filibuster if necessary.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the combination makes the estate tax no more acceptable and he pledged to kill it, saying the legislation would cost more than $300 billion.

A separate bill passed by the House that overhauls pension laws stands the best chance of getting to President Bush. Supporters said the measure would strengthen plans that cover 44 million people and they expect the Senate to pass it this coming week.

Some House Democrats contended that the pension bill did too little to prevent employers from withdrawing their pension plans and favored some industries, including airlines, at the expense of others.

Under the wage and tax measure, the minimum wage would rise from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 in three 70-cent steps starting in January.

The maneuver linking the tax cuts to the wage increase outraged Democrats.

Representative Jim McGovern, Democrat of Massachusetts, said Republican leaders knew that the tax provisions would surely be killed in the Senate. He accused them of giving their moderate members a chance to go on record in favor of boosting the minimum wage without having to deliver results.

Representative Chris Van Hollen, Democrat of Maryland, called it ``the kind of cynical ploy that makes Americans lose faith in their government."

House minority leader Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, accused the Republicans of a ``political stunt" that insulted Americans, especially the 7 million who earn minimum wage.

But Representative Zach Wamp, Republican of Tennessee, said Democrats were so angry only because they had been ``outfoxed" by the GOP strategy of combining the minimum wage with the tax cuts.

The leadership sought to put the best face on the strategy.

``These are wonderful accomplishments: House Republicans showing results for the American people," said Representative Deborah Pryce, Republican of Ohio, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House. ``We didn't want to leave for August without accomplishing both of these."

House majority whip Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, said he thought the tax cuts would make the medicine of the minimum-wage increase go down easier.

The most controversial tax provision would extend reductions in the estate tax indefinitely, but it would not eliminate the tax, as many conservatives have sought.

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.

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