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Democrats Look for Momentum on Minimum Wage

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Some Democrats, including Harkin, have gone beyond the president’s plan, endorsing a minimum-wage increase to $10.10 within three years, before automatic increases begin.

With those concerns in mind, House Republicans on March 25 defeated, 184-233, a Democratic procedural motion aimed at raising the minimum wage. Six centrist Democrats joined Republicans to block the measure.

Harkin and other supporters are hoping to move legislation in the Senate first, then push for House action. Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, chairman of the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee, said the issue was a top priority for Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

“We could see it this fall. And we will see it next year,” Begich said.

In response to GOP critics, supporters point to nine laws enacted to set or raise the minimum wage, including the original law and a three-step increase in 2007 under President George W. Bush. Every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt has signed such a law, except Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and Obama.

But some political observers doubt Congress will follow the lead of states on increases or indexing in the 113th Congress.

Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University, said Obama’s proposal will face heavy pushback from the GOP and business groups, such the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in a tough political environment. He said the administration could be put on the defensive in part because of problems in debt talks and implementation of the health care mandate.

“I don’t see it happening,” Baker said. “It’s a different dynamic in states. They are referring proposals to voters.”

Mark J. Perry, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and economist at the University of Michigan at Flint, said Republicans will have to be cautious when explaining their opposition. A March Gallup poll found 71 percent of respondents backed a $9 minimum wage.

“The pattern is, Republicans generally oppose it during the debate. Then when they know it will pass, they switch and vote in favor of it,” Perry said.

Several undecided Republicans say they will evaluate economic conditions before making a final call. “It’s going to depend on what the economy looks like next year,” said Rep. Peter T. King of New York.

In his State of the Union address, Obama said yearly minimum-wage increases were an idea that he and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney “actually agreed on last year.”

Early in the 2012 campaign, Romney renewed his long support for indexing but he later called for holding off in times of high unemployment. Now, many Republicans call for delay and for caps and exemptions to the minimum wage.

Whether lawmakers agree on indexing, Obama and other Democratic leaders will need to work out differences in their own ranks over the size of any minimum-wage increase.

Some centrist Democrats such as Mark Pryor of Arkansas, who is running for re-election next year, complain that pending bills exceed some state mandates. “It’s steep,” Pryor said of Harkin’s proposal.

Critics point out that Washington — with a minimum wage of $9.19 — is the only state to match or exceed Obama’s $9 target. New York adopted a law in April that matches Obama’s goal in two years.

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