- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2006

Hours after Senate Democrats and a few Republicans killed a bill that would have raised the minimum wage, cut the “death tax” and extended a host of other tax breaks, the political blame game was in full swing, with both parties trying to protect themselves and score points as they headed home for a monthlong campaign session.

The bill fell a few votes shy of the 60 it needed to overcome a Democratic blockade Thursday night, and the National Republican Senatorial Committee turned up the heat yesterday morning, churning out a series of press releases blasting specific Democrats in re-election bids for blocking it. Among the targets were Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Maria Cantwell of Washington, and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan.

Republicans had wagered that their combination bill would score them points whether it passed or failed. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, said yesterday he’d truly hoped the bill would pass, since all three elements had a majority of support. But, he noted, its failure means “Democrats have obstructed what heretofore has been their Number One issue, [a minimum-wage increase],” as well as popular tax-cutextensions for teachers, students and business.

“I don’t know how people like Maria Cantwell will go back to Washington state [after voting no],” he said. Miss Cantwell and other Democrats cited, among other objections, a bill provision they said would have cut wages for tip workers.

Democrats meanwhile wagered that they’d secure a bigger win by stopping the bill than by giving Republicans the political victory. “The American people last night, I think, had the opportunity to see the difference between the parties,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid told reporters yesterday. The Nevada Democrat said it was clear Democrats wanted to help the poor and middle-class with the tax breaks and minimum-wage increase but Republicans insisted, as usual, on helping the rich with estate-tax relief.

Democrats think the bill’s demise fits into their campaign message that Republicans run a “Do-Nothing” Congress, intentionally dooming the popular minimum-wage increase by linking it to the estate-tax relief. But Democrats also stepped up efforts yesterday to tell the public that it was a bad bill and that they still want a minimum-wage increase and the popular tax-break extensions.

“We are true believers in the minimum wage,” said Mr. Reid. “We’re going to push very, very hard.”

Republicans said the “Do-Nothing” message is laughable. “If there is anything that Congress has not been able to accomplish, you can point the finger at the Democratic side,” said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican.

Voters will hear both of these messages during August, and it is not clear which, if either, will resonate.

The high-stakes tussle over the bill caused a few vicious accusations. The K Street Project, a watchdog group, cited “repeated and credible sources” as saying Mr. Reid and his aides pressured the D.C. lobbying community not to lobby for the bill.

Mr. Reid dismissed the group’s charge, saying, “I don’t know who in the world they’d be talking to.” He said he only spoke to one man from a business group who said he was most interested in the bill’s tax credits for businesses conducting research.

Jim Manley, spokesman for Mr. Reid, said Reid aides did make calls to lobbyists to set the record straight, only after they heard that Mr. Frist and his aides had called lobbyists threatening that the long-sought pensions bill wouldn’t happen if the wage-tax bill failed.

Amy Call, spokeswoman for Mr. Frist, said no such threats or calls were made by the Frist camp. “At no time did we threaten the pensions bill,” she said.

Meanwhile, the popular tax-break extensions that died with the bill, including the business item Mr. Reid cited, are extended each year by Congress, and Democrats are betting Republicans won’t adjourn this fall without approving them. Mr. Frist left some wiggle room on this but said his first strategy would be to bring the entire package back to the floor if public outrage on its defeat is loud enough during the next month or so. “We’ll see how it’ll play,” he said.

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