Democrats Want to Turn the Minimum Wage Into a Women’s Issue. Will It Work?

(L-R) Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) wait for fellow women Democratic senators before holding a news conference to announce their support for raising the minimum wage to $10.10 at the U.S. Capitol January 30, 2014 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
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Elahe Izadi
Jan. 31, 2014, midnight

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.”

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