Democrats gird for minimum-wage battle

Senate Democrats plan to discuss their legislative strategy for raising the minimum wage to more than $10 an hour at a lunch meeting Thursday.

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is spearheading the push to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, but not all Democrats are yet on board.

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The biggest question mark is President Obama, who has yet to publicly endorse Harkin’s proposal, despite heavy lobbying from labor groups.

Harkin said Wednesday he is not certain whether all 55 members of the Democratic caucus would back his proposal, which would also raise the minimum rate in jobs that rely on tips to 70 percent of the standard minimum wage.

“There are different views on proceeding to it, as an amendment, as a direct bill, how do you do it,” he said. “That’s what we've got to figure out."

Harkin said one of the goals of the meeting is to find out how many fellow Democrats will back the bill.

“There are some who may want to add something to it, put something else on it, which other people would not want,” he said. “I think people deserve a clean-cut bill. Raise the minimum wage.”

Rep. George Miller (D-Calif), the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is the House sponsor of the measure.

Their bill would raise the minimum wage to $10.10 by 2015 in three increases of 95 cents.

Obama proposed in his State of the Union address raising the minimum wage to $9 an hour and indexing it to the rate of inflation.

Groups advocating for a higher wage floor have pressed the president to endorse Harkin’s proposal.

“We and many others have been in constant dialogue with him since the State of the Union. Advocates pushing for the minimum wage increase are all behind Harkin-Miller. We’ve asked him to endorse that bill at the right moment,” said Judy Conti, the federal advocacy coordinator of the National Employment Law Project.

Jason Furman, the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, indicated to reporters Monday that the White House would get behind the effort to raise the wage guarantee.

“You’ll certainly be hearing more about it,” he told reporters at a Wall Street Journal event.

Congress last raised the minimum wage to $7.25 an hour for non-tipped workers in 2007. The federal minimum wage for tipped workers has remained frozen at $2.13 an hour since 1991.

Harkin showed reporters a photocopy of a pay stub showing that an anonymous tipped-wage worker from the District of Columbia received a paycheck of zero dollars in August.

“She’s making $2.13 [an hour] and, with all the withholding and the payroll taxes, she got nothing,” he said. 

Harkin said several states already have laws ensuring parity between tip-reliant wages and regular wages: Alaska, Washington, California, Nevada, Montana and Minnesota.

Thirty-one Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, have co-sponsored Harkin’s bill.

Republicans might seek an alternative to the Democratic proposal. Republican sources say they’re considering a number of options that would focus on job creation.

In recent days, they have demanded a vote on legislation to establish a national right-to-work law, which Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) touted on the Senate floor Tuesday.

“It merely calls for repealing the discriminatory clauses in federal law that allow, as a condition of employment, forcing workers to join a union or forcing workers to pay union dues,” he said.

McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have called for attaching their right-to-work proposal to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act pending on the Senate floor.

— Erik Wasson contributed. 

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