By Sandy Alexander
WASHINGTON – Maryland’s congressional delegation voted 6-2 Thursday night to raise the minimum wage by $1 an hour over two years, after splitting along party lines on an offsetting tax break for businesses.
The House passed the higher minimum wage by a vote of 282-143 late Thursday, after more than six hours of debate.
The plan to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 an hour over the next two years was a victory for Democrats, who beat back a Republican plan to stretch the increase out over three years.
But Democrats failed to derail the $122.7 billion tax-cut bill that Republicans insisted was needed to help businesses cope with the higher wages they will be forced to pay.
Democrats had charged that the tax cut would help only the rich and President Clinton has threatened to veto the measure. Killing the tax cut would also kill the wage hike.
Maryland’s delegation split on the tax cut, with all four Republicans voting for it and all four Democrats voting against it. Only two members of the delegation — Reps. Robert Ehrlich, R-Timonium, and Roscoe Bartlett, R-Frederick — voted against the wage increase itself and the two-year phase-in.
Bartlett said in a speech on the floor of the House that it was “trying to mandate something we cannot mandate, and that is prosperity.” If Congress could do that, he said, it may as well mandate happiness and longevity as well as make the minimum wage $20 per hour.
But Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-Kennedyville, said the higher minimum wage is “a positive thing for people making minimum wage.”
Gilchrest and Rep. Connie Morella, R-Bethesda, joined Maryland Democratic Reps. Benjamin Cardin of Baltimore, Albert Wynn of Largo, Steny Hoyer of Mechanicsville, and Elijah Cummings of Baltimore in support of the higher wage.
But more important than the higher wage, Gilchrest said, was the corresponding tax cut.
“Not only are they (the tax provisions) reasonable, not only are they economically justified, they are morally warranted,” Gilchrest said. He said the tax cuts will ultimately help lower-wage workers, because the bill will help entrepreneurs pay the salaries that workers use to pay their mortgages and buy their health insurance.
Gilchrest said he was confident the president would go along with the tax cut in order to get the $1 minimum wage increase over two years. But Cardin was not so certain the president would sign off on the package.
“I’m disappointed that the tax provisions attached to it (the minimum-wage increase) have no chance of passing,” he said.
Cardin said he is hopeful that the tax cut and wage hike provisions can be separated when the Senate takes up the measure.