Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy hopes to put his Republican colleagues in the Senate in an awkward spot. Any day now he intends to attach a raise in the national minimum wage to a must-pass appropriations bill.
If it reaches the floor, senators will have to register their vote on a measure popular with a large majority of Americans - but opposed by groups representing restaurants, hotels, retail stores, health services, and other major employers of low-wage workers.
The question, as put by proponents, is: Are conservatives really compassionate or just saying they are?
The minimum wage has been frozen at $5.15 an hour since 1997. The Massachusetts senator's amendment would raise the hourly rate 75 cents six months after passage, and another 75 cents a year after that.
It may be affixed to an appropriations bill that contains a hike in pay for members of Congress. "That seems to be a likely candidate," says Jim Manley, press secretary to Mr. Kennedy.
Since 1997, Congress has raised its own pay five times for a total $21,000 increase. That's nearly twice what a minimum-wage employee makes working 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. The minimum wage, in real terms, is worth 24.5 percent less than 24 years ago. And it's $4,300 below the official poverty line for a family of three.
"No one who works for a living should have to live in poverty," Kennedy says in a press release.
Chances for passage of a minimum-wage hike are considered slimmer in the House than the Senate. The Republican House leadership is opposed, says Mr. Manley. And it has more disciplinary might than the Senate leadership. But with an election next year, pressures for passage may build.