Thursday, December 21, 2006

President Bush yesterday said his top priorities for working together with Democrats in Congress will be raising the minimum wage, renewing the No Child Left Behind education act, boosting energy alternatives to oil and completing an overhaul of the immigration system that includes a guest-worker program.

On immigration, he called for a bill to be put on his desk soon, once again setting a timetable on an issue that has stymied Congress for the last two years.

And in a morning press conference the president pledged to support a $2.10 minimum wage increase over two years, the first time he has endorsed that large an increase, though he said it must be coupled with tax cuts and new regulations that will help businesses offset the costs.

The minimum wage is shaping up as the first major domestic battle next year, and a chance for Democrats to see how far they can press their advantage in Congress.

Mr. Bush said the lesson of November’s congressional elections was bipartisanship.

“I don’t expect Democratic leaders to compromise on their principles, and they don’t expect me to compromise on mine. But the American people do expect us to compromise on legislation that will benefit the country,” he said.

Mr. Bush highlighted the new dynamic at work on Capitol Hill, saying now he and the Democrats both have an interest in getting things done — “to show that they’re worthy of their leadership roles.”

The president said he is willing to accept a deal with Democrats that raises the minimum wage to $7.25 as long as that doesn’t hurt businesses. He said the way to protect businesses is to combine the increase “with targeted tax and regulatory relief to help these small businesses stay competitive and to help keep our economy growing.”

Senate and House Republican leaders lined up behind Mr. Bush’s position yesterday, with incoming Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, saying pairing tax cuts and wage increases makes sense.

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and the new chairman of the key committee that handles the issue, rejected that approach.

“We can’t slow down this important legislation with other priorities unrelated to the minimum wage,” he said. “Minimum wage workers have waited almost 10 long years for an increase — we need to pass a clean bill giving them the raise they deserve as quickly as possible.”

Mr. Kennedy has proposed increasing the wage rate from $5.15 to $7.25 over a little more than two years, with the first 75-cent increase coming 60 days after the bill passes.

Mr. Bush did not say what taxes or regulatory changes he wants included in the bill.

In the past he has supported smaller minimum-wage increases that were tied in one case to research and development and estate-tax-cut provisions, and in another instance were tied to flex-time provisions that would have changed the rules for overtime pay.

Democrats opposed both of those alternatives, insisting on a clean increase.

It is not clear whether the election broke that logjam, especially given the possibility Republicans in the Senate might filibuster a bill that contains only wage increases with no sweeteners for businesses.

The president tried to strike a bipartisan tone on both domestic and international issues, promising to listen to Democrats as he plots a course in Iraq and to “do my part to elevate the tone” in Washington.

“I’m looking forward to working with them. It’s going to be an interesting new challenge,” Mr. Bush said, pointing out that he worked well with Democrats in the state legislature when he was governor of Texas.

On immigration, Mr. Bush said, “I strongly believe that we can and must get a comprehensive immigration plan on my desk this year.” With Congress recessed until after the new year, it is certain he meant 2007.

The president repeated his call for a guest-worker program to handle future foreign workers, which he said is critical to reducing the flow of illegal aliens.

He also said energy policy is a prime spot for cooperation with Democrats.

“There is a consensus that we need to move forward with continued research on alternative forms of energy,” he said.

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