The Minimum Wage Bill Failed in the Senate. Now What?

Democrats promise to bring it back up this election year.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid speaks at a press conference outside the U.S. Capitol April 2, 2014 in Washington, DC. During the press conference, Democratic senators urged passage of legislation that would raise the minimum wage.
National Journal
Elahe Izadi
April 30, 2014, 8:34 a.m.

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.
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