By Ramsey Cox
Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked legislation from Democrats that would increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour.
The Senate voted 54-42 to end debate on a motion to proceed to the Minimum Wage Fairness Act, short of the 60 votes that were needed. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) was the only Republican to vote "yes."
Democrats have made the minimum-wage issue central to their midterm election campaign on income equality, which aims to portray Republicans as beholden to the rich.
They promised the push for the wage increase was only beginning, and the White House signaled it would make GOP opposition to the wage hike a major part of its messaging.
“I can guarantee you we will be back on this issue,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the lead sponsor of the bill.
White House press secretary Jay Carney accused Republican lawmakers of voting “contrary to the wishes of the American people.”
“The fact is there is a bill that was voted on today in the Senate that, with the exception of one Republican senator, was voted against by the entire Republican conference in the Senate but was supported Democrats, all of them,” Carney said. “And that majority in the United States Senate reflects the majority opinion in the United States of America.”
Obama has made an increase in the minimum wage a focal point of his agenda, mentioning it in his State of the Union address and signing an executive order to increase the minimum wage of federal workers. He plans to speak about the wage vote on Wednesday afternoon.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) claimed Republicans blocked the measure at the behest of the billionaire donors Charles and David Koch, who Democrats have sought to vilify in attack ads and fundraising pitches.
“The will of the Koch brothers seems to be the top priority for my Republican colleagues,” Reid said on the Senate floor. “They said they’re going to score this vote. It means if you vote 'yes,' you’re not going to get the help of Charlie and Dave.”
Harkin’s bill would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour over two years. It would also increase over six years the tipped minimum wage from $2.13 an hour to 70 percent of the minimum wage. Further wage increases would be indexed to inflation.
Republicans argued that Harkin’s bill would harm job growth, and cited a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report that said the bill would cost the economy nearly 1 million jobs.
“Voting for an increase for the minimum wage is saying your jobs don’t matter to me because they will get taken away,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said ahead of the vote. “This bill, if it were to pass, would hammer those at the bottom of the economic ladder and cost them their jobs.”
Corker, the lone Republican who voted in favor of ending debate on the bill, said in a statement that Harkin's plan was "problematic."
"While I think the underlying policy is problematic, I think we should always debate ways to help improve the standard of living of Americans," Corker said.
It had appeared at one point that a bipartisan deal on the minimum wage might be in the works.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) floated an alternative idea that would increase the minimum wage to $9 an hour, greatly reducing the negative impact on jobs, according to the CBO.
But Democrats insisted that the wage be hiked to $10.10 because it would lift more full-time workers out of poverty.
"There is a huge area of compromise here between $7.25 and $10.10," Collins said after the vote. "I think it speaks to what’s wrong with Washington today that we were put in a situation of take it or leave it."
Carney said the White House appreciated Collins's efforts, but said the “best route” to raise wages was for Congress to pass the $10.10 proposal.
Even if the Senate had passed a minimum-wage increase, House Republican leaders have said they won’t consider a bill that doesn’t include reforms to job training programs, such as the SKILLS Act.
Republicans have argued that low wages aren’t the problem with the economy because there aren’t enough jobs in the first place.
Democrats countered that 28 million people would have seen their wages increase if Harkin’s bill had passed, while the federal government would save $4.6 billion a year from people no longer qualifying for safety net programs such as food stamps.
— This story was updated at 2:33 p.m.