TOPICS > Politics

One Month Recess in U.S. House Begins After Marathon Session

July 31, 2006 at 6:35 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Members of the House of Representatives began their month-long summer vacation this weekend, but only after working all night Friday and early Saturday on some contentious legislation: pension reform; repeal of the estate tax; and a minimum-wage increase.

Well, the House approved all of it, but whether any of it actually becomes law depends on what the Senate does this week.

Joining us to help sort all this out is Alan Ota, senior writer at Congressional Quarterly.

And, Alan, multimillion dollar estates, the minimum wage, and pensions all seem to be pretty separate areas of policymaking. How did they get so intertwined in the House’s last week of work?

ALAN OTA, Congressional Quarterly: I think, probably for your viewers, it might seem obvious that maybe Congress could just put these three things together in one bill and pass it and be done with it, but unfortunately that’s just not the way things work up on Capitol Hill.

And so what has happened is that both parties are very energized about this coming election, as they prepare to go off on the August recess. And I think what you’re seeing is that the Republican would like to turn these two bills into tough votes for Democrats, make them maybe vote against something that could be politically popular, such as the minimum wage, which is combined with a reduction in the estate tax.

And on the other hand, Democrats, I think, are looking at this as a situation where they want to basically try to prevent Republicans from having victories. We’ve had a very difficult year in Congress where not much has been able to pass. They’ve been really disagreeing about so many priorities.

They’re going off into the August recess, the Republicans, and they want to — and the House Republicans want to stop an immigration bill, a very risky strategy to prevent that from passing. There’s really not much Republicans have been able to accomplish. There is so much that is invested within these two bills, and that seems to be what the stakes are.

The minimum wage bill

RAY SUAREZ: You called it turning it into a tough vote for Democrats. But wasn't the minimum wage bill also a tough vote for Republicans until it was married with the reduction in the estate tax?

ALAN OTA: Yes, that's where I would have to say the House leadership, led by Speaker Hastert, and the new majority leader, John Boehner, and Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas have come up with -- I would have to say it's sort of an ingenious combination.

Really, the minimum wage has been an unlucky charm, I must say, over the last 10 years, nine years since there was the last increase in the minimum wage. What we've seen is historically Republicans have married the minimum wage to a poison pill, and there've been very reluctant to push an increase in the minimum wage, which helps low-income families, but I guess the argument against it is that it hurts owners of small businesses and causes them to reduce minimum wage employees.

And so what we've seen, I think, is this year in the Republicans they have not been so sure that they want to have a minimum wage be tied to a poison pill. They may actually -- I'm talking about the House leaders -- want the minimum wage to happen.

You might say, "Why?" They are looking for a difference-maker in this election. They're very worried about what could happen to several dozen moderate Republicans in states like Connecticut, throughout the Northeast and the Midwest, states such as Ohio. And if they should lose these very tight races in swing districts, they could lose control of the House, and that's the stakes.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, many companies in the U.S. over the past several years have not sufficiently funded their company pension plans. And when the companies go belly up, the pension plans go belly up, too, and become a brick on the American balance sheet, and the federal government has to step in. What did pension reform, debated this last weekend, do to address that situation?

ALAN OTA: I think what we've seen is that the pension reform package, the overhaul itself, sort of the core provisions of it, that was basically locked up in conference negotiations between the House and Senate.

And there was pretty broad agreement, bipartisan agreement, I think, on the main provisions of that, which, as you said, it's mainly intended to keep afloat some of the pension funds for the Fortune 500 companies, the airlines in particular and other troubled industries, make sure that they don't fail, give them a little bit of flexibility in terms of whether they can, you know, stretch out some of the payments that they have to make when they're staring in the eye the possibility of bankruptcy.

And so they've basically massaged that. They basically had that pretty well ready to go, but what has happened is that issue during the conference negotiation just got tied up in this bitter fight with the other three elements that you mentioned.

There were attempts to attach some tax-cutting extenders, mainly to help business, research and development tax credit, something that the Senate Finance Committee chairman, Charles Grassley, wanted very badly and his counterpart, Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, didn't want it in the pension overhaul bill. He wanted to marry that to a reduction in the estate tax, wanted to move that separately.

And that ultimately was also tied to the minimum wage. And so that's where you had a divergence of one piece of legislation with everything in it into two bills.

And so now we're going to see -- coming up in the Senate, we're going to see a filibuster, possibly, lead by the Democrats to this particular bill that ties together a reduction in the so-called death tax and an increase in the minimum wage. It will be a filibuster on that.

And then there will be a vote to end that filibuster. Probably I'm thinking it will be on Thursday. And then, after that, we'll have to deal with this pension overhaul measure that you mentioned, on which there seems to be agreement, but it's just, with all of the disputes going on, everything, both bills, are actually in doubt at this point.

The Senate

RAY SUAREZ: So the Senate is only going to be in session for a short time to go before they head out for the summer, but House members can go back to their districts, Republicans, and say, "I voted to pass a minimum-wage increase," can't they?

ALAN OTA: That's exactly right. And so that was the whole point of the choreography last week, when the House, in this late-night vote, they basically passed this bill. It was as a parting gift that they gave to the Senate. They basically turned the whole issue over now to the Senate to deal with.

And now we have the majority leader, Bill Frist, and so he has to basically resolve very angry feelings of Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley and another chairman, Mike Enzi. They're angry because they had wanted to resolve these issues themselves in the conference negotiations. The House unilaterally settled this in a way that they wanted, in a way that these senior senators opposed.

And so Frist now has to mollify and I think also the White House, the president, perhaps even the vice president, we may see discussions about, you know, what the GOP really needs to come out of this, the team to sort of develop a little team spirit. And I think that could go far in determining what the final outcome is.

RAY SUAREZ: To be continued. Alan Ota, thanks for being with us.

ALAN OTA: Thank you.