Minimum wage deal Senate breakthrough: Majority leader Trent Lott puts his stamp on the post-Dole era.

June 27, 1996

BOB DOLE's last service to the Senate he loved may have been to leave it. This is not said in criticism of the Republican presidential contender, who had hoped to compile a good legislative record to bolster his campaign. It is, instead, a recognition that guerrilla tactics by Democratic senators succeeded not only in thwarting Mr. Dole but in advancing their political issue of choice -- a raise in the minimum wage.

Since Mr. Dole's departure, his successor as majority leader, Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi, has sought to break an election-year gridlock in order to establish his own bona fides. This requires careful retreats aimed at avoiding presidential vetoes or inflaming House Republicans.

It is not easy. And it is not a process particularly helpful to Mr. Dole's campaign. But until he can show he has a real shot at beating President Clinton, the first priority of GOP incumbents will be to protect themselves.

One can hardly blame Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., for exulting that "the other side blinked" on the minimum wage. Indeed it did. Taking a page from GOP battle tactics when Democrats controlled Congress, he was prepared to add minimum wage amendments to every "must" bill on the agenda. And since a rise in the minimum wage is so popular 93 House Republicans broke ranks to pass a 90-cent increase (to $5.15 an hour), Mr. Lott had to worry about a similar defection in the Senate.

The final deal will permit a three-step sequence beginning with a vote July 8 on tax breaks for small business, a vote July 9 on the higher minimum wage and a subsequent vote on a GOP proposal for labor-management "teams" opposed by organized labor.

Killer amendments may still cause an unraveling. But a sensible minimum wage hike could so alter the atmosphere that key legislation on health care reform could yet make it to passage. Proposals to guarantee access to health insurance when workers change jobs or have pre-existing medical conditions could sail through if a dispute over GOP-backed medical savings accounts could be settled.

Perhaps incumbents in both parties have enough self-interest in a health care compromise to bring a bill to passage now that Mr. Clinton would no longer have to share credit with Mr. Dole. Such is politics.

Pub Date: 6/27/96

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