GOP Blocks Minimum-Wage Bill in Senate

GOP Blocks Minimum-Wage Bill in Senate
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As Democrats expected, Senate Republicans blocked legislation from moving forward Wednesday that would gradually increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. And afterward, as Republicans expected, Democrats pledged to bring the bill back for a vote again later this year.

Such anticipated rejections have become routine on Capitol Hill during a midterm election year in which Democrats risk losing their majority in the Senate -- a prospect that would likely dampen the remainder of President Obama’s term.

Like the vote earlier this month on equal pay legislation, the minimum-wage bill bolsters Democrats’ campaign themes aimed at the middle class and designed to turn out integral members of the coalition that carried the party to presidential victories but tend to stay home during the off-season.

“We are going to bring this issue back over and over and over again,” New York Sen. Chuck Schumer told reporters after the vote. “The minimum wage, even if it doesn’t affect you and your families, it’s an issue of basic fairness. Whose side are you on?”

Two hours after the vote, Obama blamed “almost every Republican” for blocking a measure that he said would offer a raise “28 million hardworking Americans.”

During a campaign-style East Room event organized to bring partisan divisions into sharp relief, Obama assailed the GOP for saying “no to helping millions work their way out of poverty. … They told Americans like the ones who are here today that you're on your own without even looking at them in the eye.”

Schumer also announced Wednesday that the Senate would vote this year on a constitutional amendment permitting Congress to impose campaign finance regulations. The move comes in light of a recent Supreme Court ruling allowing wealthy individuals to give more money to more campaigns.

Democrats have made brothers Charles and David Koch, wealthy GOP mega-donors in the post-Citizens United era, a top punching bag and mobilizer in the 2014 campaign. The measure is a long shot for passage, as it would require support from two-thirds of the Senate, but Schumer insists it would resonate with the public, especially when paired with the other issues Democrats are pushing this year. “Like the rest of the fair-shot agenda, most Americans don’t believe the system works in their favor,” he said.

Underscoring how minimum wage figures into midterm politics, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who sponsored the bill blocked on Wednesday, told reporters after the vote that “the American people are going to speak to this at the ballot box this November.” Washington Sen. Patty Murray said a “no” vote was equivalent to telling “one in four working women in America that $7.25 is enough to support themselves and their families. … The coming months are going to be defined by what we have accomplished for middle class families.”

Harkin recalled a 1996 minimum wage bill that he said gained support from Republicans because they knew it was something sure to mobilize voters. Schumer noted that increases in minimum wages are on the November ballot in red states like Arkansas and Alaska. On this issue, the senators said, voters will come out.

Republicans, though, seem unfazed by how this or similar votes might play in the campaign. “This is clearly a political vote because everyone knows it’s not going to pass,” said Maine Sen. Susan Collins.

All but one Republican, Bob Corker of Tennessee, voted against moving forward with the wage measure, which failed 54-42, short of the 60 votes required to proceed. (Four lawmakers from Arkansas and Mississippi were absent, due to deadly storms in their states.). “I think the reason so many [Republicans] did [vote no] is that they did feel like it was a political exercise,” Corker told reporters, noting that he disagreed with the underlying bill but wanted the chamber to debate it. “I guess my thinking was to have three of four days on the floor to talk about those things that would increase people’s wages -- [things] that would generate economic growth -- was a good opportunity.”

Republicans point to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office that increasing the minimum wage over the next 2½ years from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour would lead to a half-million lost jobs. This number, combined with news earlier Wednesday that the economy grew by a paltry 0.1 percent last quarter, gave Republicans what they call “proof” that this and other Democratic proposals would hurt the middle class.

“Washington Democrats’ true focus these days seems to be making the far left happy -- not helping the middle class,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the floor Wednesday.

Some GOP lawmakers argue that the amount of increase pushed by Democrats is too much too soon and say they might support a smaller increase.

Collins said she is working with a group of Democrats to create an alternative proposal. She said she supports increasing the minimum wage, but voted against proceeding with the measure because there likely wouldn’t be amendments to the final bill.

“Everyone knows this bill is not going to pass, and it is so frustrating to not have an opportunity to offer an alternative that might well pass,” she told reporters before the vote.

But Democratic leaders said that while they are open to suggestions from Republicans, they would not compromise on the $10.10 level, which they say would move many workers just above the poverty line.

Not all Democrats are on board, however. Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, one of a handful of vulnerable Democrats whose re-election outcomes could determine the balance of power in the chamber, backs his state ballot measure, which would increase Arkansas’ minimum wage from $6. 25 to $8.50, but opposes the $10.10 federal proposal. (Pryor was one of the lawmakers absent Wednesday to address tornado damage back home.) “While that might make sense for more affluent places like California or New York, I believe it could have a negative impact on employers’ ability to continue to provide jobs in a less wealthy state like Arkansas,” he wrote in an op-ed earlier this month. 

The president, who was greeted by loud chants of “Raise the Wage” from members of his audience on Wednesday, hailed 10 states and the District of Columbia, plus individual employers, for raising their minimum wages, in some cases above the $10.10 per hour he is pushing Congress to adopt.

The trend toward higher wages at the state level has helped millions of low-wage workers, including many women, Obama said, identifying a key demographic in the Democratic Party base. The president wasted no time before ticking off a list of Democrat-backed measures he said the GOP has blocked, to the detriment of the struggling middle class and the economy.

On his roster: more than four dozen House votes to change or repeal the Affordable Care Act; GOP efforts to reduce federal spending for support programs, and support for “a massive tax cut” for the wealthy; opposition to an equal pay measure that would benefit women; and refusals to extend expired unemployment insurance benefits for the long-term unemployed.

Republicans, the president insisted with a rhetorical sweep, “have increasingly failed to do anything when it comes to helping people who work hard to get ahead.”

Obama warned GOP lawmakers who resist lifting the $7.25 federal minimum wage that they’re standing against public opinion. “Americans have been way out in front of Congress on this issue,” he argued, “in fact, about three-in-four Americans support raising the minimum wage.”

Majorities of Republicans (53 percent), Democrats (90 percent) and independent voters (71 percent) support raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, according to a January survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. And 50 percent of adults told Pew in March that they’d be more likely to support a congressional candidate in November who backed a higher wage.

“Change is happening, whether Republicans in Congress like it or not,” Obama continued. “So my message to the American people is this: Do not get discouraged by a vote like the one we saw this morning. Get fired up. Get organized. Make your voices heard!” 


Caitlin Huey-Burns is a reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.

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