Left pushes for $10 minimum wage, but House Democratic leadership balks

The House Democrats pushing for a steep hike in the minimum wage could face an unlikely foe: their own leadership.

Behind Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (Ill.), almost two dozen liberal Democrats endorsed legislation this week to raise the federal minimum wage immediately from $7.25 to $10 per hour, the first such increase in three years.

The lawmakers think they’ve found a winning issue in an election cycle that’s featured the rise of the Occupy movement, criticism of Mitt Romney’s path to wealth and a class-centered fight over the Bush-era tax rates.

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But no Democratic leaders have endorsed the measure, and the silence coming from their offices this week has highlighted the potential political difficulty in raising the minimum wage — a move that’s anathema to the powerful business lobby — amid sluggish economic times.

Concerns about the economy have increased since last Friday, when a jobs report showed an anemic May during which only 69,000 jobs were added. A higher minimum wage could discourage employers from creating more jobs and that, in turn, could hurt President Obama in the election.

Jackson said Thursday that he’s been in discussion with some Democratic leaders — including Reps. George Miller (Calif.), head of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, and John Larson (Conn.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus — “many of whom are crafting and thinking about the idea of a minimum wage strategy.”

But Jackson also suggested those leaders are leaning toward a less aggressive approach that would hike the minimum wage in small increments over a span of years — something akin to a proposal by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate labor committee, that would hike the minimum wage gradually to $9.80 over three years. 

Jackson called that strategy “unacceptable.” 

“We want to start at $10, which keeps us up with the 1968 wage,” Jackson said, referring to the rate 44 years ago, which, indexed for inflation, would be roughly $10 per hour. 

“Our bill,” he added, “should be seen as an effort to encourage and to push the leadership further than it’s currently willing to go.” 

So far this year, Democratic leaders haven’t been willing to go anywhere on the issue. Harkin’s bill has received almost no attention; congressional leaders in both chambers have all but ignored the issue; and although Obama vowed after his 2008 victory to hike the minimum wage to $9.50 by 2011, GOP contender Mitt Romney has paid the issue more attention on the campaign trail.

“There’s probably not a need to raise the minimum wage,” Romney told CNBC in March, remarks that came after conservatives pounced on his endorsement of a wage hike just two months earlier. 

Neither the White House nor Romney’s campaign responded to requests for comment Thursday.

For some liberals, the absence of a unified Democratic front on the issue represents not only a missed opportunity but an erosion of party ideals.

“The minimum wage increase used to be the signatory dynamic of the traditional Democratic Party since they got it in 1938. That’s how decayed they are,” the consumer advocate Ralph Nader told The Hill last month. “You’re fighting their desire to win the election up against their inherent caution and cowardliness to do anything other than raise more money and put more insipid ads on TV.”

Last month, Nader sent letters to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) urging them to adopt a sharp minimum wage hike as part of the Democrats’ 2012 platform — a move he said would appeal greatly to the estimated 30 million workers who currently earn between $7.25 and $10 an hour.

“You get a conservative voter making eight bucks an hour at Wal-Mart — he or she is not going to say, ‘I don’t want 10 because I’m conservative,’ ” Nader said. “They know they’re grossly underpaid.”

Neither Reid nor Pelosi responded to the letter, Nader’s office said, nor did their offices respond to requests for comment for this story. 

Some Democrats said the push for a minimum wage hike — though almost certainly dead on arrival in a GOP-controlled House — jibes nicely with the party’s attacks on Republicans for supporting the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. 

Jackson’s bill arrives, for instance, as Obama hammers Romney for his success at Bain Capital, a private equity firm, and other Democratic leaders are increasingly trying to draw lines of distinction between the wealthy and middle-class Americans, notably in the ongoing battle over which income levels should continue to benefit from the George W. Bush-era tax rates, which expire Jan. 1. 

“It draws the contrast that part of the economic recovery has to be jobs and it has to be jobs with sustainable wages,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a supporter of Jackson’s bill, said Thursday. “Economically it’s good and strategically it’s as good, too.”