The Un-Newt Makes Another Smart Concession

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Dennis Hastert, the House GOP leader and designated un-Newt, has learned two things well: you don't get into a PR war with Bill Clinton. And you don't preside over a do-nothing Congress.

Which is why Hastert caved Monday and opened up the floor for a deal on Democrats' two-year demand to raise the minimum wage by $1 to $6.15 over two years. Republicans had tied two separate tax bills to the minimum wage increase — abolishment of the estate tax and some changes in pension laws — that Hastert wants to leave to their own devices. Now, it seems, some amalgam of the minimum-wage-increase bills in the House and Senate may actually become law.

The Clinton's chief economic surrogate, Gene Sperling, said the White House would "take a fresh look" at the tax package now that "the most objectionable poison pills" were removed. But they'll have to deal with one thing Hastert isn't budging on (yet): a $76 billion package of small-business tax breaks, to be paired with the minimum wage bill, that Republicans insist are needed to offset the negative impacts of paying some workers more than the market may call for.

Clinton has been rolling out feel-good, "people vs. powerful"-type numbers: 10 million of the nation's lowliest workers earning between $5.15 and $6.14 an hour would get a raise of some $2,000 a year. And he can always remind Republicans that none of their doomsaying about the last increase, in 1996, came to pass. For his part, Hastert figures the Democrats have the high road on this one, and there's no point in he or George W. Bush looking miserly in November when they can be rid of this thing months before then.

This is why Hastert got the job — House Republican image control. Few voters will remember who gave up more in the negotiations with the White House over that extra buck; few will care whose idea the increase was. But if Hastert can get enough of these PR losers off his desk, he can maybe help accomplish what Bush and the GOP need to win in November — convince the electorate that Republicans are capable of helping the less fortunate. That there's a way to expand the economic good times without Al Gore's populism. That there's a little compassion in "compassionate conservative" after all.

That there's a real difference between the GOP of George W. Bush and the GOP of Newt Gingrich.