WASHINGTON — House Democrats failed Wednesday to muster enough votes to override President Bush's veto of the minimum wage bill, forcing Democratic leaders back to the drawing board to draft a measure that is more to the Administration's liking.
The balloting in the House was 247 to 178, which was 34 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to overturn the President's veto. Because majorities in both houses are required to reverse a veto, the Senate is not expected to vote at all.
The House's inability to override, which had been widely expected, was a victory for the White House, which has set $4.25 an hour as the highest new minimum wage that Bush will accept. The bill he vetoed would have increased the minimum wage to $4.55 an hour from $3.35 an hour now.
The vote Wednesday leaves the Democrats with the choice of producing a new bill that Bush will accept or abandoning any serious effort to raise the minimum wage this year and, instead, using the issue as a political cudgel against Republicans.
It still was unclear Wednesday which path they ultimately will choose. The House Education and Labor Committee is expected to draft compromise legislation that would raise the minimum to $4.25 an hour, but it would do so over two years rather than three, as Bush has proposed.
"Our goal is to get the minimum wage increased, even if we have to accept a compromise," said a spokesman for Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Los Angeles), chairman of the panel. "We think it's essential that minimum wage workers get a raise, and we're going to get it done."
But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Labor and Public Welfare Committee, which managed the legislation in the upper chamber, indicated that the Senate will take a somewhat more confrontational approach.
Kennedy said that he was reintroducing "the identical bill" to begin "a dialogue" with the Administration aimed at working out a compromise. But he said that, if the two cannot get together, he will seek to enlist enough additional votes to constitute "a veto-proof majority."
The fight over the minimum wage bill has been essentially a political skirmish. Although most analysts contend that, with labor in such short supply, the measure would have little economic impact, Democrats see it as a matter of equity.
The federal minimum wage has been at $3.35 an hour since 1981, when it was increased under a previously enacted formula. The Ronald Reagan Administration repeatedly opposed any increase at all, contending that it would exacerbate inflation and discourage businesses from creating new jobs.
Bush has endorsed an increase to $4.25 an hour over three years, but he has insisted on a new sub-minimum wage for new entrants into the work force to encourage employers to hire inexperienced workers. He termed the $4.55 figure in the bill "excessive."
Only a few million workers of the 99 million now in the work force actually earn the federal minimum wage. Many states--including California--have enacted state minimums that are higher than the federal minimum. California's minimum wage already is $4.25 an hour.
The President had given ample--and frequent--warning that he would veto the Democratic bill. But the Democrats, seeking to portray the Administration as unsympathetic to the poor, have openly defied those threats. White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said Wednesday that the President's position is "firm."
White House strategists have contended that the President must draw the line now on the minimum wage issue or Democrats would be emboldened to challenge him later with more expensive proposals on other social issues, such as government-subsidized child care expenses.
There was no firm indication Wednesday of precisely when the new minimum wage legislation would go to the House and Senate.