WASHINGTON — The standoff between President Bush and the Democratic Congress over conditions attached to the Iraq war spending bill is holding the troops hostage. The nature of this hostage crisis differs depending on who describes it.

The White House says the Democrats are keeping the troops captive to a culture of “defeatism” that endangers American military men and women in the field and imperils the outcome of the entire Iraq project. Democrats say Bush is the menace, shackling the troops to a failed policy that leaves them risking their lives to police a virulent civil war.

That the troops are pawns is obvious. At least their cause is celebrated.

The livelihoods, if not the lives, of less visible political hostages depend on a quick resolution of the Iraq impasse. The nation’s 5.6 million minimum-wage workers, and an estimated 7.4 million other low-wage workers who earn just above the current $5.15 federal minimum, and would benefit from a long-overdue hike in the base wage to $7.25. Yet the unpalatable hitching of the minimum-wage hike to the controversial Iraq war funding measure is surpassed only by the outrageousness of the alternative — failure to pass a wage increase at all.

The public at large likely doesn’t realize the wage measure languishes. It was a top Democratic promise in the 2006 congressional campaigns. The House passed it just after Democrats took control of the chamber in January; the Senate followed in February. After weeks of negotiations over business tax cuts that Senate Republicans had insisted upon as a condition of any minimum-wage hike, both houses agreed to $4.8 billion in tax breaks — then attached the whole package to the must-pass war funding bill.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., long a champion of raising the minimum wage, says about 10 percent of military spouses earn the minimum or an hourly wage just above it. About 50,000 military families would benefit from raising the wage, which last was increased in 1997, according to Kennedy. The $5.15 hourly rate, adjusted for inflation, now buys about what it did in 1955. “Our troops are overseas putting their lives on the line for their country, and we should provide fair opportunities for their spouses who are working hard here at home,” Kennedy said after the Senate passed the Iraq war spending bill.

That the wage hike needs to ride such a politically burdened vehicle to passage is a telling symbol of how little the Senate has changed since control of the chamber shifted to Democrats. For years, Democrats in both houses sought a minimum-wage hike on its own; majority Republicans for years blocked consideration of it. Last year, House Democrats managed to attach the wage hike to an appropriations bill, but Republican leaders refused to take up the measure. In the Senate, a more cynical maneuver to hitch the pay raise for the nation’s poorest workers to a cut in the estate tax for its richest heirs also failed.

Even with a new Congress, lawmakers still needed a maneuver to outwit Senate Republicans, whose determination to stand between low-wage workers and a few more pennies could result in a filibuster. So Kennedy attached the wage hike to the Iraq bill.

“When you look around the country, the dynamics of this should be much different,” says Ross Eisenbrey, vice president of the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research organization that backs the wage hike. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia already have increased their minimum wages beyond the federal floor. Fifteen of those states are represented by at least one Republican senator. “It’s no skin off the teeth of the businesses in their states now,” says Eisenbrey. Nonetheless, only a small handful of Republicans could be counted upon to vote to break a filibuster, with the rest unwilling to buck their leaders.

Perhaps, as many congressional leaders now hope, the Iraq standoff will end quickly and an agreed-upon war spending measure, with the minimum-wage hike included, will be sent to the president for his signature by the time Congress recesses for Memorial Day. Pessimists see the impasse lasting until July.

Workers — most of them women — whose pay keeps them in poverty already have waited too long for a raise. Their paychecks should not depend on the politics of a terrible war. At some point, even the Senate may have to acknowledge this.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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