Republicans Yawn at the Senate’s Minimum-Wage Vote

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 19: U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) answers questions from reporters following the weekly policy lunch of the Democratic caucus November 19, 2013 in Washington, DC. Reid spoke on recent efforts by Senate Republicans to filibuster judicial nominees appointed by U.S. President Barack Obama.  
National Journal
Michael Catalin
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Michael Catalin
April 27, 2014, 6:39 a.m.

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!”

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