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Senate Battles Will Center on Wages, Gay Marriage

It looks like it’s going to be a noisy three weeks in the Senate as both parties try to grab the political limelight in the run-up to the Democratic National Convention at the end of the month.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has decided to forgo using July to work on must-pass appro-

[IMGCAP(1)] priations bills, perhaps in a tacit acknowledgement that once the Defense and Homeland Security spending bills are passed separately, as is expected, the other 11 spending measures will likely be rolled into an omnibus.

Instead, Frist has set out a modest schedule for the month that seeks to get red-meat issues front and center to rally the Republican base, but which will also give Democrats ample opportunity for their own base-building exercises.

Take for example the class-action legislation that will be on the Senate floor beginning today. While Frist secured a filibuster-proof 60 votes for the bill to send more class-action lawsuits to federal courts last fall, he has been reluctant to bring the measure to the floor sooner because of Democratic threats to add myriad extraneous amendments, not the least of which is a minimum wage hike.

The cadre of Democratic supporters of the class-action measure have vowed to stand up for their fellow Democrats’ right to offer non-germane amendments to the bill.

“In order to get this thing through the Senate, you’re going to have to allow Democrats to offer amendments, and you’re going to have to have some votes on them too,” said one Senate Democratic aide. “Shutting down Democrats is not the way to go on this bill.”

That’s probably why Frist has agreed to allow a vote on an amendment by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to raise the federal minimum wage from the current $5.15 an hour to $7.

But it’s not as if Republicans are going to allow Kennedy a moment in the sun, or give a boost to Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who has used the issue prominently in his presidential campaign, without a fight. That’s why they’re devising an alternative minimum wage amendment — rumored to raise the hourly wage by $1.10 to $6.25 an hour — but a spokesman for Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said on Friday that the details of the amendment had not yet been finalized.

However it’s crafted, the McConnell amendment will likely be designed to give GOP moderates, who generally support a minimum wage increase, a chance to back a more modest measure and in turn defeat the $7 proposal.

Republicans could also offer other amendments intended to make Democrats uncomfortable, such as a bill to allow compensatory time off to replace some overtime pay and “reforms” to how the Occupational Safety and Health Administration operates.

The traditional compromise between the two sides, such as marrying a minimum wage increase to tax breaks for small businesses, could also make an appearance.

So it might be wise to pencil in two or three days of fighting over that issue alone before the Senate will actually get to the substance of the bill. Of course, that’s only if Democrats decide not to offer as amendments a bill to permit reimportation of prescription drugs or a proposal to extend the assault weapons ban.

Given the prospect that he may be faced with more than just a minimum wage fight, Frist said on June 25 that he had little patience for Democratic message amendments to the class-action bill.

“I’ve made it clear that with … 38 days left in this session, we should not be debating non-relevant amendments on class action,” he said.

Once class action is done, likely Tuesday or Wednesday of next week, Frist plans to let the chamber debate the wisdom of a wave of same-sex marriages that has been sweeping the country, and press Senators to invalidate them with a constitutional amendment stating that marriage can be only between a man and woman.

A skeptical press corps grilled Frist on June 25 about his GOP colleagues’ statements that the timing of the marriage amendment vote was designed to put Kerry on the spot on a sticky social issue just before he accepts the Democratic nomination for president.

Frist denied that his schedule had anything to do with the proximity of the Democratic convention, saying the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision allowing gay marriages to begin on May 17 was what forced his hand.

“Every day I put it off, people are getting married,” said Frist. “It’s a deterioration in an institution that the American people value.”

It was unclear last week how much time Republicans would want to spend debating the measure, and Democrats have not yet decided whether to try to filibuster it or simply let it fail on an up-or-down vote, as they expect will happen. Constitutional amendments must pass with a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers and then be ratified by three-fourths of the states’ legislatures.

Given that a handful of the Senate’s 51 Republicans have already expressed doubts about the need for a constitutional amendment barring gay marriage and Democrats are less than thrilled with the prospect, Frist acknowledged he would have a hard time rounding up 67 votes.

After spending perhaps a week on what is expected to be a losing proposition, Frist said he may turn to appropriations, such as the Homeland Security spending bill. If the House and Senate have reconciled their differences on the Defense authorization bill and/or Defense spending bill, the conference reports for those two measures could also come up the week of July 19.

Frist is also reportedly pressuring Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to get a tax-extenders bill ready for the floor by July 19. The tax bill would extend the $1,000 child tax credit, the expanded 10 percent income tax bracket and tax breaks for married couples.