Congressional Democrats hope to seize momentum from states as they push to raise the minimum wage for the first time in four years.
The proposal to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $9 an hour was a surprise policy addition to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address in February, and Republicans in Congress generally see it as dead on arrival.
But supporters of the proposal note that 18 states have now set wage floors higher than the current national minimum wage and 10 states require cost-of-living adjustments: Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.
Key Democrats say the action at the state level is an important element in the political dynamic around the minimum wage, helping their effort by signaling the popular support for an increase. New Jersey voters, for example, will consider a proposal to raise and index state minimum wage in November — a model some Democrats want to follow at the national level.
Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a longtime champion of higher wages, says the issue likely will simmer until the 2014 campaign season. “States are ahead of us,” Harkin said. “There may be a disagreement over how much, but people realize we’ve got to do it.”
Obama and other party leaders will use the 75th anniversary of the enactment of the Depression-era law setting a wage benchmark on June 25 to rally support for their push to raise the minimum wage.
Obama’s proposal would raise the minimum wage in two steps and would mandate annual indexing for inflation. Some Democrats, including Harkin, have gone beyond the president’s plan, endorsing an increase to $10.10 within three years, before automatic increases begin.
In his fiscal 2014 blueprint in April, Obama made clear such increases were vital to his vision. Annual increases would boost the wage scale — and even taxes — for all workers. “We have to get wages and incomes rising,” Obama said.
In response, top Republicans such as Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio point to the continuing tepid economic growth and the 7.6 percent unemployment rate, arguing that increasing the wage minimum would discourage employers from hiring and tamp down economic expansion. Republicans favor alternatives to spur growth and hiring such as business tax breaks and streamlined job-training programs.
They contend that annual wage hikes would be layered atop employer premiums — or penalties — that are mandated next year under the health care overhaul (PL 111-148, 111-152).
“Another increase in the cost of doing business would only damage the opportunity for people to find jobs in this economy,” said Jerry Moran of Kansas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.