April 29, 2014 11:17:24 AM
WASHINGTON -- The push by President Barack Obama and Senate Democrats to raise the federal minimum wage seems ready to join the parade of issues that gets buried in Congress but -- the party hopes -- propels voters to the polls this November.
Immigration. Renewing expired jobless benefits. Tighter curbs on guns. All of them Obama priorities. All of them attracting some Republican support. And all of them tripped up, at least for now, by GOP opposition.
And now, a bill by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, boosting today's $7.25 hourly minimum in three steps until it hits $10.10 as soon as 2016. His minimum wage bill is widely expected to join that list Wednesday, when the Senate seems poised to vote on it.
Though it should win backing from nearly all of the 53 Democrats and two Democratic-leaning independents, few Republicans are expected to join them, likely leaving them shy of the needed 60 votes to begin debate.
On Monday, Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., told reporters he will probably vote to let the Senate consider the bill. That made him the first GOP senator to publicly take that stance, though he also said he would oppose the legislation on final passage.
"On the issue of wages for Americans, I don't know why you wouldn't want to debate that," he said.
Democrats are aware of the bill's likely fate. But they also know that according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, women and young people make up disproportionate portions of the 3.3 million people who earned $7.25 or less last year. Both groups traditionally tilt toward Democrats, who would love to lure them to the polls this fall as they fight to retain Senate control.
"It's a powerful motivator for voters in the Democratic base who are a focal point of Democratic efforts to turn out voters in the midterm elections," Democratic pollster Geoffrey Garin said of the minimum wage push.
Senate Republicans have scant political incentive to support the measure.
The GOP's business allies oppose the increase, saying it drive up employers' costs. Republican lawmakers have buttressed that argument with a February study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which estimated the $10.10 increase would eliminate around 500,000 jobs -- though it also concluded that earnings would rise for at least 16.5 million low-paid workers.
Republican voters also give GOP senators little reason to back the increase.
An Associated Press-GfK Poll in January found that while the public supports a minimum wage increase by 55 percent to 21 percent, Republicans oppose it by 39 percent to 32 percent. For tea party voters -- who GOP senators hope will vote in large numbers this November -- the gap is 43 percent against an increase and 28 percent for it.
To counter Democratic arguments that they are clueless about today's harsh economic realities, Republicans say the priority should be finding ways to create jobs with steps like reducing taxes and regulations on companies.
"You can try to wave a magic wand and artificially" increase wages, said Republican pollster David Winston. Instead, he said, the GOP is reaching out to voters "who'd like to be earning more money and really think the economy needs to be turned around."
Both sides' constituencies oppose compromising on a lower figure, including the AFL-CIO, which backs an increase, and the National Federation of Independent Business, which opposes one. That makes a bipartisan deal even less likely, at least before the elections.
That means the battle will probably produce little more than fodder for campaign advertising. Both sides' lobbying reflects the low odds of a law being enacted, with scant advertising and few signs of all-out campaigns that typify major Washington battles.
"This is largely seen as a campaign action, and not an effort to legislate" minimum wage changes, said Scott DeFife, top lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association.
The pressure for congressional action is further reduced by the states -- 21 have minimum wages above $7.25. Five have enacted increases so far in 2014, and 29 others are considering boosts. By law, workers covered by both the federal and a state's minimum wage are entitled to the higher amount.
As much as Democrats hope the minimum wage vote will spur support from women and young voters, history shows there are no guarantees they will benefit.
Women account for more than 6 in 10 people earning the current minimum wage or less. And in midterm elections since the 1970s, exit polls of voters show women have tilted toward Democratic congressional candidates by an average of 7 percentage points.
But in a cautionary note to Democrats, that's not set in concrete: Women split about evenly in 2010, when Republicans took over the House.
Nearly half of people earning minimum wage or less are under age 25, even though they represent just a fifth of people working for hourly pay.
Younger voters have leaned toward Democrats by an average 7 percentage points since the 1970s. The margin has been even greater since 2004, when their preference for Democrats has been by double-digit percentage points.
Young people, however, aren't stalwart voters in midterm elections. They have averaged just 6 percent of voters in those elections, compared to the 10 percent of the overall population that 18- to 24-year-olds represent.
The Democratic bill would raise the federal minimum to $8.20 six months after enactment, $9.15 after an additional year and $10.10 a year after that. The minimum would then automatically increase annually with inflation.
It would also gradually boost the $2.13 minimum for tipped workers like waiters to 70 percent of the full minimum wage.
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