President Clinton will buck certain congressional opposition to seek an increase in the minimum wage as a sign of his resolve to buttress the earning power of working Americans and stress the value of work, senior White House officials said Monday.
In the face of widespread demands for new requirements that would force welfare recipients to find jobs or lose benefits, administration aides described the president’s proposal as one step toward providing new incentives for work.
But the proposal would be largely symbolic because some leaders of the new Republican Congress are opposed to the very concept of a minimum wage, much less an increase in the federal standard, which has been $4.25 an hour for the last four years.
The White House is leaning toward an increase to $5 an hour, phased in over several years.
White House spokesman Michael D. McCurry said Monday that the president’s economic advisers had given him their recommendations on the subject over the weekend and that Clinton had a “very firm idea” of how to proceed and would announce his decision “at the appropriate time.” McCurry and other officials declined to say whether the president would broach the subject in his State of the Union address tonight.
Clinton himself, asked Monday whether he would announce a proposed increase in the speech, said only, “Tune in tomorrow.” But in discussing the possibility earlier this month, the president noted the longterm erosion in the value of the minimum wage and said, “The No. 1 mission of the country in this recovery is to raise incomes.”
For weeks, presidential advisers and Democrats in Congress have debated how to handle a proposal that appeals to traditional Democratic constituencies such as organized labor but that some economists look askance at and that has little chance of passing. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., has proposed an increase to $5.75 an hour over three years, and some unions complain the White House proposal is too timid.
But the White House has been wary lest the proposal peg the president as a captive of old-fashioned liberal thinking, emphasize his weakness vis-a-vis Congress and overshadow the broader blueprint of tax breaks, educational incentives and hopes for the second half of his term that he wants to sketch in his speech.
Advocates such as Labor Secretary Robert B. Reich have argued an increase of 50 cents an hour essentially would compensate for inflation since the last increase in 1991. Coupled with an additional 25-cent increase in coming years, they say, the move would boost incomes of the lowest-salaried workers without big new government spending and with little overall reduction in employment, positioning Clinton as champion of the little guy.
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