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.