by Peter Cohn
House Republican leaders are putting off a vote on the $141.9 billion FY07 Labor-HHS bill that was expected next week, fueling speculation that they will try to keep a lid on the measure until after the November elections. Democrats' successful bid to attach an increase in the hourly minimum wage this week was only the latest headache for GOP leaders on an already divisive bill under attack from party moderates and conservatives over spending levels. A House GOP leadership aide confirmed that the bill would not reach the floor next week, despite the objections of Appropriations Chairman Lewis, who is seeking to move all 11 FY07 spending bills through the House before the July Fourth recess. Others following the bill said there is a chance it would not come up even the following week, and possibly not at all. "I would put money on it not coming up before the elections," said one lobbyist who is close to the leadership. That would make the Labor-HHS bill a prime candidate for a continuing resolution at lower funding levels or an omnibus bill, which Lewis is trying to avoid.
The Labor-HHS bill always is the most problematic of the annual spending bills. Congress barely approved it last year, and it only passed the Senate after Republican leaders, clearly lacking the votes, threatened a CR as the alternative. This year, House appropriators have restored about $1 billion in home-state projects in the initial version of the bill, aiming to please enough Democrats to support the measure as they did on the floor last summer. Appropriators eventually stripped an equal amount from the FY06 bill to make room for other priorities, such as low-income energy subsidies, contributing to its near-demise. Lewis added $4 billion more to the FY07 bill than President Bush requested, in part by reducing Defense funds by the same amount. But the bill is still about $3.1 billion shy of what House moderates argue is needed to keep pace with inflation in education and health programs, and GOP leaders already were facing a House-Senate standoff.
Then came the maneuver by House Minority Whip Hoyer to raise the hourly minimum wage by $2.10, which attracted seven Republican appropriators on a 32-27 vote in committee this week. "That took a big problem and made it worse," a Republican aide said. GOP leaders could leave the provision open to a point of order, for legislating on an appropriations bill. But that still would force a House floor debate and vote on the issue and further expose the GOP split on labor issues. The minimum wage hike is opposed by a coalition of business groups including the National Retail Federation, National Restaurant Association, U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Federation of Independent Business. Senate Democrats will try to attach similar language to spending bills in that chamber, but those efforts have fallen short in recent years.