By Mike Lillis - 06/09/12 11:09 AM EDT
Rep. George Miller (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Workforce Committee, is readying legislation to raise the minimum wage.
Miller's proposal – which will include a series of small, gradual hikes modeled on a bill championed by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) – strays from the approach urged this week by a score of House liberals who, behind Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), want a sharp and immediate increase in workers' wages.
Still, the Democrats' newfound focus on higher wages for lower earners – an issue all but ignored by party leaders this election cycle – launches a new phase of the party's broader campaign strategy to paint Republicans as champions of the wealthy at the expense of the middle class.
Rep. John Larson (Conn.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said Friday that the difference between the Miller and Jackson bills is largely inconsequential. What's important, he emphasized, is that Democrats support the concept of a minimum wage hike and Republicans don't.
"The Democrats are going to be for the minimum wage [hike]. How they get there, that's an entirely different issue," Larson said. "It's drawing the distinctions."
Reminded that Democratic leaders have not made the minimum wage an issue this year, Larson said, "But we will."
"I characterize it as an important piece of the puzzle – an important piece of the jobs puzzle," he said.
Harkin in March introduced a sweeping economic-stimulus package that included a provision hiking the minimum wage to $9.80 per hour in three stages over three years. The current minimum wage has been $7.25 since July of 2009.
Jackson on Wednesday went a step further, proposing legislation to jump the wage to $10 per hour immediately, while indexing automatic future increases to inflation.
Supporters of the more aggressive approach say it would increase the buying power of roughly 30 million low-income workers, creating a spike in consumer spending that would benefit the economy on the whole.
"The old Henry Ford adage that, 'I need to pay my workers so that they can purchase the cars that they produce' is applicable here," Jackson told The Hill Thursday. "We need people spending and purchasing goods to jumpstart this economy."
Jackson supporters are also quick to note that some of the nation's largest corporations – including banks and automakers – have been bailed out by taxpayers in response to the recession. Why not ensure some of the money also benefits low-income workers? they ask.
"As we continue to provide more incentives and opportunities for businesses," Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a supporter of Jackson's bill, said Thursday, "we'd like to see some of that … also translate into some direct help for the employee."
Miller on Friday cited a practical reason why he prefers Harkin's approach.
"It has a better chance of becoming the law of the land," he said.
Larson on Friday applauded Jackson's move, saying he "resurrected" the minimum wage issue. But the Connecticut Democrat also suggested the staged approach was the better one.
"On its face, I think everybody [in the caucus] would say that, 'Hey, Jesse Jackson's got a great idea,'" Larson said. "But [for] the practicality of getting from here to there, you know, both the Harkin approach and the Miller approach make sense."
Still, none of the Democrats' bills has any shot of passing – or even being considered – in the Republican-controlled House. With that in mind, some liberals are wondering why Democratic leaders don't rally around Jackson’s more aggressive proposal.
Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, has charged Democratic leaders with displaying "undue caution" for favoring small incremental increases in workers' wages in lieu of a quick hike to $10.
"They all have incredible caution," Nader said in a phone interview last month. "Why should you give these corporations – who year after year after year have raised their salaries, have raised their prices, and have received a windfall of underpaid workers that they employ – why should you give them any more time?
"In a vibrant society," Nader added, "you'd ask for a refund."
Miller is preparing a "Dear Colleague" letter designed to drum up support for his coming proposal, though his office said Friday that it's unsure when that letter will be distributed.
Larson, for his part, conceded that the bill has no chance of moving before November's elections. But he hinted that Democrats would try to attach it to any number of the many fiscal and tax-related packages Congress will likely be forced to tackle in this year's lame duck.
"[I] wouldn't be surprised," Larson said, "if this ends up in that mix, too."