Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on Tuesday delayed action on legislation raising the minimum wage, the centerpiece of the Democrats’ 2014 agenda.
The Nevada Democrat made the surprising move amid escalating Democratic resistance in the wake of a Congressional Budget Office report released last week estimating that hiking the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour could cost the equivalent of 500,000 jobs by late 2016.
Throughout this year, President Obama has called on Congress to “give America a raise.” But there is Democratic infighting over how much the raise should be.
Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.), the chamber’s most vulnerable incumbent, has said he does not support the legislation. He does, however, back a pending plan in his home state to increase the minimum wage to $8.50.
Other Democrats up for reelection who have not co-sponsored the Harkin measure include Sens. Mark Warner (Va.) and Mary Landrieu (La.).
Meanwhile, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who is not up for reelection, has said he prefers raising the minimum wage to a level lower than $10.10.
Based on the number of holdouts, there is a chance the bill could fall short of a simple majority if the vote were held today. Such an outcome would sap the movement of significant momentum.
The good news for Reid and the White House is that a couple of red-state Democrats, Sens. Mark Begich (Alaska) and Heidi Heitkamp (N.D.), have officially embraced the $10.10 figure. Begich is seeking a second term this fall.
There could be more support for a $9-per-hour minimum wage, which is what Obama initially proposed. Liberals in Congress, most notably Harkin and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), balked at Obama’s plan, and the White House subsequently backed down. Harkin is chairman of the Senate Health, Education and Labor and Pensions Committee.
Reid on Tuesday dismissed the possibility of compromising on a rate lower than $10.10.
“Not with me,” he said when asked about the possibility.
Reid blamed the delay on Republicans.
“The obstruction continues and it slows things down,” he said. “We’ve also been hampered by trying to get an extension of unemployment benefits. The slowdown has been a result of continued obstruction.”
Reid announced after the State of the Union address that the Senate would take up the legislation on March 6. Now it is scheduled to come up after the March recess, which spans from March 14 to 24.
Democrats are downplaying the impact of the CBO report, which Republicans have seized on.
“You couple that with CBO’s estimate of 2.3 million fewer jobs created under ObamaCare and you’ve got a pretty big hit on an economy that is already suffering from way too much joblessness,” Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) said Tuesday.
“The last thing we need to be doing right now in our country is passing legislation that destroys even more jobs,” he said.
A coalition of liberal and labor groups said they asked Reid to postpone consideration of the minimum wage bill to give them more time to wage a grassroots lobbying campaign.
The coalition has reached out to about a dozen Republican senators, but not a single one has yet endorsed the legislation.
Without Republican support, the bill will stall on the Senate floor. Reid is likely to bring it up again shortly before Election Day if Republicans block it in late March or April.
“I think most of the advocates who are working on this are also working on unemployment insurance and hoping to have a little more time so everyone has every resource they need to make the right decision and vote yes on minimum wage bill,” said Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator at the National Employment Law Project.
Members of the coalition, which includes major labor unions, have focused their resources this year on repeated votes to renew extended unemployment benefits that lapsed in December.
Jeremy Funk, spokesman for Americans United for Change, said, “Sen. Reid’s announcement is welcome news to those of us who are working to mount a national campaign to give America an overdue raise.”
Reid said he will move forward with the minimum wage bill even if some Democrats oppose it.
“People have a right to vote however they want,” he said. “But it makes it a little tough [to oppose] around here when you have companies like Gap, [which has] 65,000, 75,000 employees who’ve just done it. They’ve raised the minimum wage already. It’s happening all over the country.”
Gap Inc., a clothing retailer, announced last week it would adopt an hourly minimum wage of $10. The federal minimum wage now stands at $7.25.
Carper provided a document to The Hill that showed raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour would allow a single parent to collect $25,486 a year, a total boosted by the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit.
The most likely impact of hiking the minimum wage to $9 would be a loss of 100,000 jobs and 7.6 million people getting more money according to the CBO.
Supporters of the Harkin legislation note the CBO report estimated a minimum wage of $10.10 would lift nearly a million people out of poverty.
House Democrats hope to force a vote on a minimum wage hike through a discharge petition. If 218 lawmakers in the lower chamber sign the petition, it would force a floor vote.
While some Republicans might be inclined to vote for the bill that polls well, few — if any — are likely to side with Democrats to usurp Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) control of the schedule.
Erik Wasson contributed.
This story was posted at 2:54 p.m. and last updated on Feb. 27 at 11 a.m.
After this story was published, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) added her name as a co-sponsor of Harkin's legislation.