After months of planning a vote on a bill to hike the federal minimum wage, the Senate is expected to take up a procedural vote on Wednesday. But even at this late hour, aides say it is still unlikely to prevail.
Rather, the measure to hike the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10 an hour over the next two and a half years has become part of the political tug-of-war as Senate elections heat up in earnest.
Republicans are greeting the news of a long-awaited vote with skepticism, saying that Majority Leader Harry Reid wants to push the measure as a campaign issue for as long as he can, providing a counterweight to the Republican attacks on Obamacare.
As Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is locked in a tight race back home in Kentucky, put it recently: "You can look for the Democrats all year long to be trying to change the subject to anything else."
Privately, Republicans also wonder whether the reason the bill has languished — Democrats first began talking about hiking the wage before Thanksgiving — is because Reid does not have his caucus in line.
Democrats, including Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who also faces a close race, and Tom Carper of Delaware, have balked at the $10.10 rate. Some have suggested lowering the upper limit. But Reid, an original cosponsor of Sen. Tom Harkin's bill, is not open to compromise. "I'm wedded to $10.10," he has said publically.
He has also — without much elaboration — blamed the delayed votes on Republican "obstruction."
Perhaps sensing an opportunity to peel off some Democrats, moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins, who faces reelection in blue Maine, is seeking support for an alternative proposal at a lower rate. But many Republicans have shown a philosophical reluctance to raising the wage and many doubt there would be enough support in the conference for whatever solution Collins could present.
Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, for instance, is on record as opposing the very idea of a minimum wage. "I do not believe in it," Alexander told his committee.
Alexander, who would likely be tasked with debating Harkin if the Senate votes to take up the bill, is unlikely to get the chance. Instead, aides say the procedural vote Wednesday is likely to halt the bill in its tracks.
"They're throwing their base some red meat," said one Senate Republican aide, "or whatever the Democratic equivalent might be. Wheat pasta?"
There may be some truth to the charge.
Last week, a New York Times/Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that in contests in Southern races, Democratic incumbents appear to be hanging on in territory that President Obama lost badly. Pryor had a 10-point lead over Republican Rep. Tom Cotton; Mary Landrieu of Louisiana led Rep. Bill Cassidy 42 percent to 18 percent; and Kay Hagan of North Carolina holds a 2-point lead over state House Speaker Thom Tillis. In Kentucky, McConnell held only a 1-point lead over Democratic rival Alison Lundergan Grimes.
"This marks an enormous blow to Republicans, who must win three of these four races to take over the Senate," the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee blasted in an email.
Reid says the minimum-wage issue could help Democrats further. "Polls show overwhelmingly the American people support raising the minimum wage," Reid said recently. "I mean I, frankly, feel we're doing quite well."
But Republicans are also making some races competitive that were seen as favoring Democrats just months ago, and they're doing it with a combination of candidate recruiting and exploitation of Obamacare.
Former Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts is mounting a challenge to Jeanne Shaheen in New Hampshire, and Rep. Cory Gardner of Colorado is taking on Sen. Mark Udall. Udall led Gardner by a statistically insignificant 1 point in a recent Quinnipiac University poll. In Oregon, where Republican doctor Monica Wehby is challenging incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is trumpeting the faltering state health insurance-exchange website.
On the minimum wage, Republicans feel as though the Congressional Budget Office has vindicated their position and inoculated them against Democratic barbs. CBO projected in February that once the new wage level is fully implemented in the latter half of 2016, total employment would drop by "about 500,000 workers, or 0.3 percent."
Not all Democrats are cowed. Merkley is putting the issue front-and-center, noting in a campaign email that 235,000 people have signed a petition to raise the wage.
As he told voters, "We must not let off the gas — now is the time to push ahead!"