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Senate Democrats Could Offer Test Vote on Wage

While Democrats seek to present a united front on President Bush’s State of the Union address tonight, divisions between House and Senate Democrats over a minimum-wage bill could be simmering this week.

In fact, Senate Democratic leaders appear ready to send a message to their House counterparts that they don’t have the votes for a bill that is not coupled with small-business tax breaks.[IMGCAP(1)]

Senate Democrats readily acknowledge that they probably don’t have the 60 votes needed for the “clean” minimum-wage bill that passed the House two weeks ago, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) prepared Monday to set the stage for a test vote on the House bill sans the bipartisan $8.3 billion package of small-business tax breaks that he previously indicated he supported.

“We’ll see if we’ve got the votes for a clean bill or whether there’s got to be some adjustments to get the thing through” the Senate, said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who is managing the bill on the floor. Kennedy said that Democrats were two or three votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome an inevitable GOP-led filibuster of the unmodified bill.

On Monday night Reid filed a motion to limit debate, or invoke cloture, on the House-passed minimum-wage bill, aides said. Reid said earlier in the day that if 60 or more Senators voted for the cloture motion, the bipartisan amendment to add the tax breaks for small businesses could not and would not be added.

That would please House Democratic leaders who defiantly have resisted pairing the minimum-wage bill with tax breaks, because they don’t want to look for offsets to pay for the tax cuts and because they want to adhere to the tradition of tax bills originating in the House.

If the Senate sends over a bill with tax breaks in it, House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) has said he will “blue slip” the bill, effectively preventing the measure from going to a House-Senate conference committee.

“House Democrats really do want to see a clean minimum-wage bill,” said one House Democratic leadership aide. “We shouldn’t have to spend $8 billion to raise the minimum wage.”

Another House Democratic leadership aide acknowledged that the Senate is unlikely to pass its bill without business tax breaks, but said House leaders were willing to engage in a “game of chicken” over the issue.

House Democrats might try to attach a clean wage increase to other legislation, such as spending bills, the aide said. “There are certainly vehicles out there for it,” the aide said.

Even though it appeared that the Senate test vote was not primarily aimed at pressuring fence-sitting Republicans, Senate Republican leaders — who worked with Reid and Senate Finance Committee Democrats and Republicans to craft the tax package — were dismayed that Reid would move to eviscerate the deal. But they also acknowledged that the vote might be more about differences between House and Senate Democrats.

“It’s pretty clear that this is a rejection of the bipartisan overture that was made in committee,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide. The aide also noted, “It’s clear they don’t have consensus within their own party … and they need to settle their dispute with the House before they take this up in the Senate.”

Senate Republicans said they were planning on enjoying the intraparty fight over the minimum-wage measure.

“Democrats are going to fight each other on this. We don’t need to,” the aide said.

There is no indication that Reid intends to pull the minimum-wage bill after an expected Wednesday cloture vote on the “clean” bill. Kennedy said the debate would last well into next week, but he expressed confidence that a bill would pass both chambers early this year.

“I’m convinced we’ll get an increase in the minimum wage. It may take a couple of weeks longer” than otherwise if the Senate insists on adding its tax package, he said.

Kennedy held out the possibility that the House could pass another minimum-wage bill that includes tax breaks, while other Democratic aides said the Senate simply could wait for the House to pass a tax bill and use that measure as a vehicle for their tax break and wage increase bill.

Kennedy noted, “We expect a number of [GOP] amendments in an effort to derail it.”

First up, Democrats must beat back a Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) amendment to give the president a modified line-item veto over appropriations. Even though some Senate Democrats supported a similar proposal in 1995, Republican aides said the Gregg amendment likely would not overcome the 60-vote threshold set for it in a Wednesday vote.

“I’m not confident in their consistency,” the Senate GOP aide said of Democrats.

Plus, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) may offer an amendment to give employers the option to offer health insurance rather than a wage increase.

The Iraq War and the State of the Union address will dominate press conferences and committee meetings on Capitol Hill this week.

On Wednesday the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will take up Bush’s plan to send 21,500 more soldiers to Iraq under his “surge” proposal. While a senior GOP leadership aide acknowledged that many Republicans on the panel would break with Bush, the hearing almost certainly will provide fodder for both sides over the coming days.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other GOP leaders are backing Bush on his plan to boost troop levels, but they recognize that a major push-back is all but impossible at this point and are taking a much more defensive posture. McConnell and his team will be looking to minimize damage over the next few weeks, aides have said.

A Senate floor vote on the Iraq resolution could come this week, but it may have to wait until debate on the minimum wage wraps up.

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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