Hiking the minimum wage has become the issue-of-the moment for Democrats, and as with many other major policy initiatives of late, they're touting it as legislation that has a greater impact on women.
It's a tactic they embraced in the run-up to the 2012 race, as the "War on Women" narrative took hold. But now instead of just taking on obvious women's issues—the Violence Against Women Act, for instance—they're targeting women voters on health care, immigration, and economic policy.
"Are Republicans really going to block giving 15 million American women a raise? Are they prepared to tell one in four women in America that $7.25 an hour, which is barely enough to buy a couple gallons of gas, is enough for them to support themselves and their kids?" Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said at a press conference, flanked by nearly all of the other Democratic women in the Senate. "If they are, what does blocking a minimum-wage increase say about their priorities when it comes to American women?"
The lawmakers pointed out that two-thirds of people earning the federal minimum wage or less are women. In the debate over the economics of wages, there are plenty of statistics all sides use for their positions. Democrats say three-fourths of Americans back a hike (although that is for $9); Republicans point to studies showing a wage hike leads to more unemployment; those lukewarm on the issue note that fewer than 5 percent of workers paid hourly get a wage at or below the minimum.
As Democrats turn a wage hike into an issue with particular importance to women, a number of Republican lawmakers acknowledge that their party has got a way to go on this front.
"We've got more work to do in terms of our messaging, and particularly our messaging with women and job creation and higher wages," said Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D. "The Republican approach goes to supply and demand: How do we create the kind of business climate that will encourage private investment, get companies to hire more people, and create more jobs? And then that demand for labor, men and women, helps move wages higher."
Sen. Susan Collins says messaging toward women is something the GOP is getting better at doing. "That clearly has not been a strong point in the past, but I think if we can get women to look at our economic policies, they will find them very attractive," the Maine Republican said. "But that means we have to avoid members making incendiary remarks about social issues and thus alienating women."
It's something that House leadership has taken note of; No. 4-ranking House Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers made the party's State of the Union response, touting her personal story as a working mother and saying that "Republicans have plans to close the gap—plans that focus on jobs first, without more spending, government bailouts, and red tape."
The minimum wage is the top item Sen. Tom Harkin wants to see pass before he retires at the end of his term. According to the Iowa Democrat, who authored a wage-hike bill, "The momentum is building on this—really building on this. Even Bill O'Reilly says $10 sounds about right."
The chances of a wage hike passing, Harkin says, are "very good, and I'm not being Pollyanna-ish about this—and I've been around a long time. I'm Pollyanna-ish about some things, but not this."
Make no mistake, the bill has a ways to go. It will hit the Senate floor in early March, and while Harkin says he's open to compromises to "sweeten the pot" for Republicans to back it, he won't be on board with going below the $10.10 he's proposing. Murray and others concurred.
Whatever compromises could come up would likely be unacceptable to Democrats. Harkin bypassed a committee markup to avoid "embarrassing amendments" from Republicans.
And then there's the business of what will happen in the House. As President Obama announced that he was raising the wage for workers on new federal contracts via executive action this week and would be visiting states and businesses that have raised their wages, Rep. James Lankford of Oklahoma, a member of Republican House leadership, said he doesn't see a federal hike happening this Congress. "If businesses are doing it and states are doing it, then why do we have to do this as the federal government? The market is already determining that," Lankford said.
If Senate Republicans kill a minimum-wage hike, or House Republicans don't bother to take it up, they'll be talking instead about how they want to create better-paying jobs. A favorite talking point of House Republican leadership is that they've passed dozens of jobs bills they are waiting for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to take up.
But to reach women on economic issues, the GOP will have to cut through a lot of other noise. "In the messaging wars, unfortunately, we seem to get pounded more often than not," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.
"And in fairness, isn't it about making sure the policies are right rather than the message?" Murkowski asked. "Sometimes when you try to distill the world into a bumper sticker, it might look good on the bumper sticker, but it doesn't work well for families around the country and workers."
Democrats counter that substance is precisely what their women-centric message is about. "Telling American women that they don't deserve a living wage isn't about tone or about how [Republicans] talk about women's issues, it's about what they do," Murray said. "It's about policy."
This article appears in the February 3, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.