Democrats Are Ready to Take the Minimum-Wage Fight on the Road

And vulnerable Senate Democrats are not running scared.

Low wage workers wearing Santa hats join with supporters of an increase in the minimum wage during a protest outside the Air and Space Museum December 5, 2013 in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
March 26, 2014, 12:04 p.m.

Pre­dic­tions that Re­pub­lic­ans will suc­ceed in their quest to un­seat vul­ner­able Demo­crats and take con­trol of the Sen­ate look mighty fine. But to that, Demo­crats say: Come at me, bro.

Sen­ate Demo­crats will start push­ing bills next week tied to a le­gis­lat­ive agenda they hope will be­come part of a lar­ger nar­rat­ive that all Demo­crats—par­tic­u­larly red-state ones fa­cing tough reelec­tion battles—can ag­gress­ively run on.

It kicks off with next week’s vote on a bill to in­crease the fed­er­al min­im­um wage to $10.10. The Sen­ate will vote the fol­low­ing week on the Paycheck Fair­ness Act, in­ten­ded to curb gender dis­par­it­ies in pay. Oth­er bills will ad­dress such is­sues as col­lege af­ford­ab­il­ity and tax loop­holes.

“Just about every­body in our caucus is happy to run on these is­sues,” said the No. 3 Sen­ate Demo­crat, Chuck Schu­mer. “They may not agree with ex­actly, spe­cific­ally what we might do on a few of them—[Arkan­sas Demo­crat­ic Sen.] Mark Pry­or is for min­im­um wage, but he’d be for it for at $9—but the pro­pos­al that we have over­whelm­ing sup­port in the caucus and over­whelm­ing sup­port with the Amer­ic­an people.”

Pry­or is among a con­tin­gent of Sen­ate Demo­crats who face con­stant at­tacks over Obama­care while run­ning in tough races in deeply red or purple states. And just a hand­ful of them have ex­pressed re­ser­va­tions about as­pects of the Sen­ate’s min­im­um-wage bill, with none try­ing to run away from this type of eco­nom­ic agenda.

Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisi­ana says she sup­ports the in­crease in the min­im­um wage, but still has con­cerns about the tipped wage and the timeline for a wage in­crease. “There’s no ques­tion that rais­ing the min­im­um wage is the right thing and the im­port­ant thing to do for mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans who work 40, 50 hours a week and still live be­low the poverty line,” she said.

Sen. Mark Warner of Vir­gin­ia said he “strongly” sup­ports a min­im­um-wage in­crease, without sign­ing off on the cur­rent bill. “There is go­ing to be a le­git­im­ate de­bate about tim­ing and phase-in ef­forts to make sure it has the min­im­um amount of dis­rup­tion in a still weak eco­nomy,” he said.

But oth­er red- and purple-state Demo­crats up for reelec­tion, such as Sens. Kay Hagan of North Car­o­lina and Mark Be­gich of Alaska, have em­braced the wage bill as is. Be­gich said it’s not a polit­ic­ally dif­fi­cult po­s­i­tion for him to take. “I don’t think it’s a prob­lem over­all. It’s good busi­ness, it makes good sense, and mak­ing sure people make a liv­able wage is im­port­ant be­cause they’ll spend that in the eco­nomy.”

The wage bill may not even make it past the Sen­ate, and it most cer­tainly won’t make it in­to law—it pre­dict­ably faces loads of op­pos­i­tion in the House. But that’s not really the point. It gives Demo­crats a coun­ter­weight to Re­pub­lic­an at­tacks over Obama­care.

The min­im­um wage is already an is­sue in many of these law­makers’ states. A min­im­um-wage in­crease will be on Alaska’s primary bal­lots this sum­mer, thanks to a cit­izen pe­ti­tion. And the state’s min­im­um wage is already 50 cents high­er than the fed­er­al wage. North Car­o­lina’s state wage, mean­while, mir­rors the fed­er­al $7.25 rate. In Arkan­sas, Demo­crats are or­gan­iz­ing a bal­lot ini­ti­at­ive to in­crease that state’s wage from $6.25 to $8.50 by 2017, something that Pry­or does sup­port.

Sen. John Thune, a mem­ber of the Re­pub­lic­an lead­er­ship, said that mem­bers of his caucus “are pretty united” against the the wage pro­pos­al. Re­pub­lic­ans will use a Con­gres­sion­al Budget Of­fice ana­lys­is to push back against the in­crease. CBO found that bill would re­duce the num­ber of work­ers in the labor force by 500,000 in 2016 (and also lift 900,000 out of poverty).

“I would be very cau­tious if I were one of those [red-state] Demo­crats about get­ting out there about a policy that the CBO says will cost the eco­nomy jobs,” Thune said. “It’s an is­sue that Demo­crats see as polit­ic­ally ad­vant­age­ous for them in an elec­tion year to try and drive, but I’m not sure that it doesn’t back­fire on them once you provide the counter ar­gu­ment.”

But with a wage in­crease polling well among Amer­ic­ans—73 per­cent back it, ac­cord­ing to a Janu­ary Pew Cen­ter sur­vey—Demo­crats are will­ing to take that gamble.

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