By Molly K. Hooper and Bob Cusack - 02/21/14 06:00 AM EST
Speaker John Boehner is so against raising the minimum wage that he once said he would rather commit suicide than vote for a “clean” increase.
The Ohio Republican and son of a barkeep has repeatedly opposed federally mandated hike increases, which have been a constant in the Democrats’ election-year playbook.
Some Democrats are optimistic Boehner will cave and allow a vote this year, but the record shows there is little if any daylight between the pro-business Speaker and his conservative conference on this issue.
Boehner made the comments about suicide in an April 1996 interview with The Weekly Standard.
“I’ll commit suicide before I vote on a clean minimum-wage bill,” Boehner, then the head of the House Republican Conference, said at the time.
Four months later, President Clinton over Boehner’s objections signed a minimum wage hike into law that lifted the wage by 90 cents, from $4.25 per hour to $5.15.
It wasn’t a clean wage hike because it included some Republican sweeteners such as tax breaks aimed at small businesses. The bill passed the Senate, 76-22 and cleared the House, 354-72. Boehner voted no.
Boehner voted against the wage hike again in 2007, when Democrats took over the House majority and in one of their first actions voted to lift the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour.
The only time Boehner voted to increase the minimum wage came in 2006, and that was on legislation destined for death. Boehner backed a GOP measure that raised the minimum wage to $7.25 over three years, but it also included deep cuts to the estate tax that made the bill dead-on-arrival in the Senate.
In this case, Boehner was trying to help his party by scheduling the vote.
The bill was an election-year gambit by Boehner aimed at keeping the minimum wage from becoming a campaign issue for Democrats in 2006, the year they won the House.
Eight years later, President Obama and Democrats are plotting a similar strategy to try to hold on to their Senate majority.
The Democratic-led Senate is expected to debate legislation in the next few weeks that would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10.
Obama has repeatedly calling on Congress to “give America a raise.”
House Democrats, meanwhile, want to force Boehner’s hand by trying to get 218 signatures on a discharge petition, which would trigger a floor vote.
While those petition drives almost always fall short, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) voiced optimism that the House could vote on raising the minimum wage. He noted that prior predictions about votes on the federal debt ceiling were wrong.
Over protests from Tea Party groups, Boehner scheduled, and Congress subsequently cleared a clean-debt hike earlier this month.
Miller told The Hill, “We were never going to have a clean-debt increase.”
A Boehner spokesman said the Speaker's long-held skepticism of raising the minimum wage is rooted in the Ohio lawmaker's experience as a small-business owner.
Former Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.), said, “John and House Republicans right now see ObamaCare and the economy as being the No. 1 issues…I think it would be very, very difficult, if not impossible, for John to schedule a clean up-or-down vote on a minimum wage bill.”
Hoekstra, who served on the Education and the Workforce Committee when Boehner was chairman, added, “There's no hiding it, John just believes it's bad economic policy….[Boehner] is a guy that is very fond about talking about growing up in a bar and starting work at a young age.”
Claremont McKenna College political science professor Jack Pitney said, "Republicans really believe this stuff. This is one case in which ideology and political interest point in the same direction. Small business is a major Republican constituency and small business has always been reluctant to accept minimum wage increases.”
He added, “Boehner might agree to hold a vote on it if his members start pressuring him to, but it doesn't seem right now like a lot of Republican members are feeling a lot of pressure in their districts on this issue.”