To the surprise of no one at all, a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 failed to advance in the Senate Wednesday, garnering less than the 60 votes needed to move ahead. The bill failed 54-42, with Sen. Bob Corker the only Republican voting to advance it.
But that's not really the point. Democrats have pledged to bring the bill back up again and again.
In reality, the minimum-wage bill is one part of Democrats' 2014 election-year legislative agenda, intended to energize voters and draw a contrast between Democrats and the GOP. President Obama has been campaigning on it, and Senate Democrats have been messaging the bill for months, pitching it as a women's issue (two-thirds of those earning the minimum wage are women), and one that will particularly help low-income Americans and veterans.
Of course, Democrats would have loved to see the bill advance. But they've known its weak prospects for some time, as Senate Republicans have stood united against raising the wage to $10.10. Even Republican deal-maker Sen. Susan Collins failed to find enough support for her potential alternative proposal to raise the federal wage at a lower level. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, the author of the legislation, have insisted they won't budge from the $10.10 level.
Harkin says it's not uncommon for a minimum-wage hike to fail on the first go-around. "If Republicans are concerned about it, they might want to vote on it now and get over it before we get too close to the election," he said Tuesday.
His proposal would raise the wage from $7.25 to $10.10 over 30 months. It would also increase the wage for tipped workers from $2.13 an hour to 70 percent of the federal minimum wage.
The Republican objection is that raising the minimum wage at that rate would cost the economy jobs. They cite a Congressional Budget Office report that it could reduce the labor force by 500,000 in 2016 (while also lifting 900,000 people out of poverty). That analysis has been challenged by Democrats.
Corker, the only Republican to vote for the measure, explained his support for advancing the bill after the vote. "I just think debating how you're gonna improve the standard of living of Americans is an important thing to do," he said. But he doesn't think Republicans are in a bad spot for blocking the bill. "I think the reason that so many people" voted against it, he said, "is that they did feel like it was a political exercise. I understand that."
Sen. John Thune, a member of Republican leadership, also called the vote is "a political exercise" for Democrats. "I'm sure they figured to get something out of it."
Hours after Republicans blocked the bill, Obama spoke from the White House, saying "if there is any good news here it's that Republicans in Congress don't get the last word on this issue or any issue, you do."
He continued: "Do not get discouraged by the vote like the one we saw this morning. Get fired up. Get organized. Make your voices heard."
But will they? It's still unclear whether the issue is something that will energize the Democratic base enough to turn out in November, but Democrats are combining it with other legislative pushes, such as the Paycheck Fairness Act, which also failed to advance in the Senate.
Democrats also insist the minimum-wage issue resonates with not just the base, but swing voters as well. To wit, the minimum-wage hike didn't scare off some of the most vulnerable Senate Democrats facing reelection, as some of their home states are also considering increasing their minimum wages. Sen. Kay Hagan of North Carolina has been messaging around it; Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska has wholeheartedly embraced it.
Some Democrats up for reelection have voiced concerns with the particulars of Senate bill, such as Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, either because of the $10.10 rate or the provision to increase the wage for tipped workers. But even they all support raising the federal minimum wage from where it is now.
The only Democrat who was expected to vote against cloture on Wednesday, Sen. Mark Pryor of Arkansas, is absent from Washington all week, following deadly storms in his home state. He supports a ballot initiative in Arkansas to raise the state wage from $6.25 to $8.50 by 2017. Four senators in total were absent from Wednesday's vote.
Reid switched his vote to no as a matter of procedure, so he can bring the bill back up for a vote later.
Democrats think it's smart to bring the bill back up before November, even if it keeps failing.
"If it was up to me, I would vote on the minimum wage 10 times between now and the election, if we had the opportunity," said Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut. "It's pretty important to show the difference between the two parties on this issue."
This post was updated Wednesday afternoon with the president's comments from the White House.
Michael Catalini contributed to this article.
This article appears in the May 1, 2014 edition of NJ Daily.