By Aaron Blake - 07/20/06 12:00 AM EDT
Democrats’ strategy to push an increase in the minimum wage this year played out as an election wedge issue last week when 64 House Republicans voted for a nonbinding resolution urging conferees on a job-training bill to include a federal minimum-wage increase.
Of those Republicans, one-third are facing competitive reelection races this November. Most are Northeastern centrists, but others include more conservative vulnerable members such as Reps. Geoff Davis and Ron Lewis from Kentucky and Reps. Bob Ney and Deborah Pryce of Ohio.
Democrats and the party have increasingly pressed the issue and are now using it in ads to criticize Republican candidates around the country. But while many vulnerable GOP incumbents voted for the largely symbolic resolution, few Republican challengers and open-seat candidates are willing to express support for the increase.
The proposal calls for an increase of more than 40 percent, from $5.15 per hour to $7.25 per hour. Polls show the majority of Americans support an increase, but Republican leaders and most members of the party maintain it would harm the economy and lead to job losses.
Few Republicans tout their position on the issue, and many campaigns didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Vermont Republican candidate Martha Rainville has said she agrees with Democratic opponent Peter Welch’s call for a $7.25 minimum wage, making her the only candidate reached for this story to support the proposal fully.
Another Northeastern candidate, Ray Meier, is running for the seat of retiring Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), who voted for the resolution. Meier said he is open to an increase as long as it is accompanied by protections for small businesses, such as making certain benefits in the tax code permanent. The proposal would need to add that component, he said.
As a state senator, he voted against a similar increase. He said his vote was primarily because he believes it is a federal issue — he doesn’t want some states to have a competitive advantage over others — but also because it did not have the small-business protections.
“The Democrats are demagoguing this issue … and they have a lot of explaining to do to the small-business community in terms of why their concerns are not part of this discussion,” Meier said, calling small businesses the “job-creating engine in this economy.”
Meier is one of several candidates targeted by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee on this issue. This week, the DCCC began running minimum-wage ads attacking Republicans in six districts, including Pryce, Iowa 1st District candidate Mike Whalen and Rep. Heather Wilson (N.M), who also voted for the nonbinding resolution.
The ad in Iowa casts Whalen, who said in a debate that he opposes an increase, as a “wealthy hotel and restaurant owner who’s made millions, but — guess what — he’s against raising the minimum wage for working people, like those who work in hotels and restaurants.”
Whalen is running against Democrat Bruce Braley for the seat of Rep. Jim Nussle (R), who chose to run for governor rather than for reelection. The ad borrows from Whalen’s comments during a May primary debate when he said an increase wouldn’t have the “positive impact” people think it does.
Whalen’s campaign could not be reached for comment.
Former Rep. Max Burns (R-Ga.), who is running against the man who replaced him in the last election, Rep. John Barrow (D-Ga.), agrees that the minimum wage needs to be increased but said a 40 percent jump is too big and would lead to inflation and a loss of jobs.
Burns is one of the few Republicans using the issue in his campaign. He said Democrats are using it as a political ploy, and he has criticized Barrow for circulating a discharge petition in recent months to force a vote. Burns suggested that Barrow is playing politics because he waited longer than most supporters to co-sponsor the minimum-wage bill and then took a lead on the issue with the petition.
Burns did not suggest a more appropriate increase, saying the issue needs hearings and a full debate.
Many Republican candidates, like Meier, have dealt with the issue in their state legislatures. More than 20 states set their wage floors above the federal level, and several have recently passed increases. Democrats aim to get initiatives on the ballot that could get the vote out in six other states, most of which have high-profile House or Senate races.
Wisconsin state Assembly Speaker John Gard (R), running for the open seat of gubernatorial candidate Rep. Mark Green (R), last year helped broker a deal with state Democrats to raise the minimum wage to $6.50. He had wanted a lower threshold and, as a compromise, got a law prohibiting cities from raising theirs any higher.
Gard didn’t take a position on the issue in a statement from his spokeswoman. Most others said flatly that they were opposed to an increase.
Republican David McSweeney, who is trying to unseat freshman Rep. Melissa Bean (D-Ill.), doesn’t advocate any increase in the minimum wage. He said the focus should be on “policies that will actually create new jobs,” such as keeping taxes low and deregulation.
Chris Wakim, the Republican challenger to Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), also opposes raising the minimum wage, saying his opponent “thinks he knows how to spend a taxpayer’s money better than the taxpayer.”
Republican Ralph Norman, facing 12th-term incumbent John Spratt (D-S.C.), is against any increase in the minimum wage, said campaign manager Nathan Hollifield, because it would destroy small businesses.
Aside from the nonbinding resolution, more than two dozen GOP moderates have sent Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) a letter asking for a vote on the minimum wage before August recess. Democrats have also attached an increase to the Labor and Health and Human Services appropriations bill.