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The issue might not prove closest to his heart, but House Speaker Dennis Hastert predicted in Buffalo today that Congress will pass a law this year increasing the minimum wage.

"It's going to happen," he said.

Hastert visited Buffalo this morning to star in a fund-raising event benefiting Republican Reps. Jack F. Quinn Jr. of Hamburg and Thomas M. Reynolds of Clarence. The event drew a large crowd to the Pierce Arrow Museum on Seneca Street, where the speaker, a car enthusiast, delighted in inspecting the array of vintage automobiles newly put on display.

But he also touched on a number of hot congressional topics, such as the proposal to raise the minimum wage, which, under a bill sponsored by Quinn, would increase to $6.15 an hour from $5.15 over two years.

Hastert shrugged his shoulders today when asked about the bill and made it clear that Quinn will carry the bill in the House for supportive Republicans.

"Jack's going to be the prime mover on that," he said in an interview, adding the bill does not rank as a personal priority for him.

"I'm a small businessman," he said. "I think that's a choice that business has to make. But it's pretty inevitable."

Quinn has emerged in the House as a leader of moderate Republicans who, when combined with the substantial Democratic minority, often prove a key voting bloc on such issues as raising the minimum wage. The speaker said today that Quinn and the moderates are very much a part of "our base" for the Republican majority.

"We can't operate without moderates; we can't operate without conservatives," he said. "It's my job to bring everybody together."

He also said the ability of Republicans to include moderates who champion labor-favored issues and some social issues is an "incredible credit to our conference."

Hastert, a one-time teacher and coach from Illinois, worked hard to convey the message that Congress is dealing with major issues important to everyday Americans. He said the current patients' bill of rights, which is being hotly debated, eventually will pass because the Republican version "is for patients."

"The differences between us and the other side of the aisle is that we don't give the show away to trial lawyers," he said, referring to the intent to allow patients to sue their insurance companies over denial of benefits.

"Americans are fed up with a litigious society," he added. "We want to make sure Americans are able to get the health care they need . . . and are not hung up in a court someplace before they get their health care."

Hastert noted, however, that patients must have "some leverage" by being able to sue and that the Republican bill provides for that.

"But also, people have to get health care, and we provide access to that," he said. "Our bill has those provisions that the other bill doesn't."

Hastert also was scheduled to appear at another fund-raiser for Reynolds later today in downtown Rochester.

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