By Elana Schor - 08/02/06 12:00 AM EDT
The outcome of Friday’s climactic vote on a bill that would slash estate taxes and boost the federal minimum wage remained in doubt yesterday as party leaders tried to turn controversial policy, election-year politics and bruised egos in their favor.
Many Republicans hailed a stratagem they said would put Democrats in an electoral bind by combining the GOP-favored estate-tax cut with a minimum-wage increase that has been a top Democratic issue and a widely popular extension of expiring tax breaks.
Even if they do not win enactment of the “trifecta” bill, they said they would be able to blame Democrats for standing in the way of both parties’ policy goals.
“There’s no risk. It’s all reward,” said Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “It’s a very compelling political package.”
Republicans, down by large margins in generic congressional polls, could use a legislative victory to counter claims that they have presided over a “do-nothing” Congress, but it is not clear whether GOP leaders can find 60 votes to end debate and consider the measure before the Senate adjourns for its August recess.
Process has become an issue in both caucuses, complicating the efforts of Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to secure passage of the package, which includes tax-cut extensions once attached to a pension overhaul.
Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) were unhappy with GOP leaders’ decision to move the extensions into the estate-tax measure. Grassley did not attend a conference meeting Monday, and both skipped yesterday’s Republican policy luncheon.
The measure phases in an exemption for estates of up to $5 million, or $10 million for couples, by 2015. Estates between $5 million and $25 million would be taxed at the capital-gains rate, and the rate on estates over $25 million would fall to 30 percent. The minimum wage would rise from $5.15 per hour to $7.25 per hour over three years.
Frist said yesterday that the bill is the last chance this year for its component parts.
“If the Senate kills the trifecta bill, we will not return to it this year. That means we would have no permanent death-tax reform, no tax-policy extenders and no minimum-wage increase,” Frist said. “It’s now or never. It’s this week.”
Several Republicans and Democrats bristled at the process, including Finance Committee member Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who called the move “unbecoming of the Senate.”
Enzi, who joined with Grassley in a last-ditch bid to revive the pension conference before the House took up its bill late Friday night, suggested more subtly that he would have preferred a different tack.
“I’m not the one doing the process,” Enzi said. “If you watch the process, often it doesn’t go the way reasonable people thought it would go.”
Asked whether he approved of the way Frist and House leaders attempted to sweeten the pot, Enzi was optimistic about the outcome: “I like to get things done. I think the conference is on the way to getting some significant things done.”
Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) said yesterday that he is concerned about “continuing to cut our revenues.” He noted that Rhode Island’s minimum wage is already over $7 per hour and said he is “still taking a look” at the package. Chafee and Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) were the only two Republicans to vote against ending debate on an estate-tax repeal in June.
The votes of several Republican conservatives who opposed a GOP minimum-wage amendment in June are also in doubt. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, did not attend Monday evening’s conference meeting and said he “really [has] not decided” whether to swallow a minimum-wage increase in exchange for an estate-tax rollback.
Two other Republicans who opposed their party’s past business-backed minimum-wage increase also professed uncertainty as to how they would vote Friday. Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) said aides to conservative members were pooling some resources to evaluate the measure, and Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.) declined to tip his hand.
“I’ll ultimately vote when the ultimate vote comes,” Bond quipped when asked whether his absence from the Monday conference meeting signaled reticence.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), another vocal critic of raising the minimum wage, is considered a more likely yes vote for Frist.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) praised the combination of a $2.10-per-hour increase in the minimum wage, which most Democrats back, with a permanent $5 million estate-tax exemption favored by most Republicans.
“Any senator is going to have a hard time explaining to middle America why this isn’t a really good deal,” Graham said. He noted the political double whammy of pairing two election-year staples in one bill, predicting that the “trifecta” would be “one of the defining issues of the  campaign.”
Graham lauded Frist’s maneuvering of the legislation, which began with House members’ breaking up pension conference talks to use the popular tax-credit extensions from that bill as a sweetener for the “trifecta” measure.
“I can’t say enough good things about leadership’s positioning of this package,” Graham said.
Several committee chairmen said Frist made the right move.
“When it comes to process not substance, you have to give a lot of deference to leaders,” said Sen. Trent Lott, who is chairman of the Rules Committee and a former majority leader. “In the end, the leaders make that call.”
Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said the process by which the bill was constructed should not affect lawmakers’ votes.
“You should look at the policy, not the ego here.” Gregg said.
He reiterated objections to a $4 billion mine-cleanup provision that was also shifted from the pension bill. But Gregg said he would vote in favor of the bill.
“We want to do it while we’ve got the votes,” Gregg said. The mine provision was added to try to win the votes of West Virginia Democratic Sens. Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller.
Republicans also hope to win over Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell, who is locked in a tight reelection battle, with provisions designed to help the state’s timber industry.
But Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) is making a “strong appeal” to Democrats to oppose Friday’s cloture vote, according to Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).
Sen. Bill Nelson (R-Fla.) came out of the Democratic lunches saying he is undecided on the bill, as did Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a longtime supporter of estate-tax rollback. Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) said he too had not yet made up his mind.
Despite facing a tight reelection race against Republican insurance magnate Pete Ricketts, the Nebraska Nelson said politics “are not playing into” his vote.
But outside the Senate chamber, the air was thick with politics.
“There’s like 12 30-second ads sitting around in this bill,” a Republican aide said. “Or they could vote for their No. 1 agenda item.”
“I think it’s going to be a very interesting vote,” said Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).