They won’t get much help from Senate or House Republicans, but Democrats in the Senate will be getting a boost from a coalition of labor groups as lawmakers take up a federal minimum-wage bill.
“We think that in order to survive in today’s economy the minimum wage is completely inadequate. We think [raising it is] a moral imperative,” said AFL-CIO political director Michael Podhorzer. “We also think it’s an economic imperative.”
Labor unions supported congressional Democrats in the debate over extending unemployment insurance before Senate Republicans blocked their efforts last week. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka even attended an event at the Capitol with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and similar events surrounding the minimum-wage push are likely.
Yet despite the strong, election-year interest by Senate Democrats and their allies, the bill appears destined to die in the Senate.
Hiking the minimum wage, which was last raised more than four years ago, is not on House Republicans’ agenda. Neither are Senate Republicans, angry over Majority Leader Harry Reid’s strong-arm procedural tactics, eager to let the measure move forward.
“My read is that it fails to get 60 votes, which Reid knows and hopes is the case, so that he can beat Republicans over the head with it going into the midterms,” one Republican Senate aide said.
The Senate measure, sponsored by Reid and Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa, would boost the wage from the current level of $7.25 an hour to $10.10, in three increments over two and a half years.
The bill, which bypassed the committee process to cut off “embarrassing” Republican amendments, as Harkin put it, is expected to make it to the floor sometime in February, according to a Senate Democratic aide. The White House has endorsed the measure.
“We view the federal minimum wage legislation as an extremely important first step,” Podhorzer said. “We are actively involved in working to increase the state minimum wages and working toward a living wage.”
Yet opposition has already surfaced. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the ranking Republican on the HELP Committee, has philosophical objections to increasing the minimum wage, viewing it as an economic drag.
“The minimum wage is a good-sounding attempt to fix the price of labor. In a market system, what that usually does is create a shortage — it creates less,” Alexander said at a hearing on the minimum wage in June.
Some Republicans also see a federal-versus-state issue. Sen. Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican and a member of the HELP Committee, says he plans to vote against the measure, arguing that wages should be set by states.
While Democrats would prefer to see the policy enacted, they also believe there’s a political advantage built into the issue for them. The minimum-wage increase is part of a larger Senate Democratic push to focus on economic issues they view as politically advantageous. That strategy will include bringing the unemployment-extension bill that Republicans blocked last week back to the floor, Democrats announced last week.
“I think it’s really good policy and that’s what makes it good politics,” Podhorzer said. “I don’t think you’d have the kind of interest that’s driving if it were just a campaign issue.”
But it is possible to view the push for a minimum-wage hike and an extension of unemployment benefits as a Democratic attempt to go on offense. Indeed, Reid said last week he expects constituents to put pressure on Republican lawmakers during the break. At a recent event, Harkin even invoked a single mother who works two jobs to provide for her children, underscoring the visceral nature the minimum-wage debate often takes on.
“The Republican Party may not understand the challenges that this single mother is facing, but the American people certainly do,” Harkin said.
But Republicans so far are unfazed by the political jousting. Asked whether he’s concerned that Reid plans to turn the minimum wage into a political cudgel to use against the GOP, Burr smiled.
“He’s made a political issue out of everything,” Burr said. “That’s not an earth-shattering thing.”