No clear winners in election-year battle

WASHINGTON -- Republican lawmakers called it the "trifecta bill" -- evoking the image of a three-time winning ticket at the racetrack.

But lawmakers from both parties are predicting that they hold the winning ticket after this week's vote on legislation that would (1) raise the minimum wage, (2) cut taxes on multimillion dollar estates and (3) extend tax breaks for business research, college tuition and states sales taxes.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., led the effort to roll all three issues into one bill that Senate Democrats succeeded in blocking. Each side vowed to use the vote to gain favor with voters, who'll pick winners and losers in November.

Democrats, who have been agitating for a minimum wage hike for years, said pairing it with costly tax cuts for millionaires was simply too high a price to pay.

"If there were ever a clear illustration of who [Republicans] are and who we are, take a look at what happened this week," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told reporters Friday.

But Frist says Democrats will be held accountable for blocking the measure.

Politics aside, the groups impacted by the demise of the GOP-drafted bill face varying prospects for success in ultimately achieving their goals.

The estate tax doesn't have to be addressed until the end of 2010, when current law expires, giving farmers and the small business lobby ample time. It's common wisdom in Washington that the other tax breaks in the bill will pass this fall. Left behind, however, are more than 5 million hotel maids, dishwashers, fast food and janitorial workers and other minimum wage earners stuck at $5.15 an hour. Adjusted for inflation, the minimum wage is the lowest it's been in 50 years.

Some more neutral observers say Democrats secured the most political advantage from last week's vote.

"It's a serious setback for Republicans," said political analyst Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "They've got the power. They can't make it happen. I can't find an instance in the past where a party with all the reins of power has been able to get away with blaming the guys in the minority and I don't think it works this time."

Added Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution: "It's a loss for Frist politically, and on balance, it adds to the Democratic charge that this Congress and this administration is not getting important things done."

Both parties look to capitalize on the minimum wage-estate tax votes in an election year in which polls suggest Democrats could make gains or even seize control of Congress. The most recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll showed only 27 percent approved of the way lawmakers were doing their jobs.

Thursday's Senate vote and a July 29 House vote did give GOP supporters of raising the minimum wage inoculation against an especially potent attack by Democrats -- that Republicans in Congress have refused to raise the minimum wage for 10 years, even as they've accepted pay raises totaling $35,000 over that time.

Frist's estate tax gambit was launched with the expectation that Democrats such as Maria Cantwell of Washington, Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Robert Byrd of West Virginia could be drawn on board under pressure from home state interests.

Byrd ultimately was the only Democrat to switch in favor of the estate tax bill after voting against it in June. He came on board after Republicans added a long-sought plan to pay for abandoned coal mine cleanup projects and health care for retired miners.

Other Democrats said the 10-year, $268 billion cost of the estate tax measure was too high.

"The estate tax package before the Senate goes far beyond what our nation can afford," Pryor said.

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