Centrist Republicans cool to minimum wage hike compromise

Senate Republican centrists are reacting coolly to Sen. Susan Collins’s (R-Maine) effort to reach a compromise on the minimum wage, imperiling progress on President Obama’s top economic agenda item.

Collins needs to bring along at least four Republican colleagues and perhaps five — depending on how Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) votes on the issue — to move a minimum wage boost through the Senate.

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Centrist Republicans who teamed up with Collins to forge a bipartisan deal to extend unemployment benefits for five months say they are not interested in another compromise to boost the minimum wage.

Without the support of other Republicans, the Democratic proposal to raise the federal wage floor above its current level of $7.25 an hour appears doomed to fail on a party-line vote.

“I would not be going along with a compromise. If that came to a vote, I would oppose it,” said Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.), one of five Republicans who last week crafted a bipartisan deal on unemployment benefits.

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), who spearheaded the negotiations on unemployment assistance, said the minimum wage is an issue best left to the states instead of the federal government.

“I think Nevada solved the problem,” said Heller. “I think it’s a state issue.”

Heller said Nevada set its own minimum wage at $8.25 an hour and indexes it to inflation.

“I think there’s a difference between North and South, East and West on what those minimum wages ought to be,” he added.

He noted that Nevada law requires the minimum wage to be a dollar higher per hour than the federal wage floor. He said if Congress raises the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and indexes it to inflation, Nevada could soon have a $15-an-hour wage threshold.

Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), another centrist Republican who supported this week’s agreement on unemployment benefits, said he would not be inclined to support a minimum wage compromise.

“I don’t think so. Ohio has a higher minimum wage actually indexed to inflation,” he said.

Ohio’s minimum wage is $7.95 an hour.

He said his state would lose jobs if Congress enacted the steeper wage trajectory supported by President Obama.

Collins says she has reached out to Democratic and Republican colleagues in recent days to find a compromise that would raise the minimum wage to a level below $10.10.  She has emphasized a Congressional Budget Office report estimating that $10.10 an hour could cost 500,000 jobs. The same report projected a raise to $9 an hour would likely cost only 100,000 jobs.

“I’m confident that the votes are not there to pass a minimum wage increase up to $10.10 therefore it seems to me to make sense for senators on both sides of the aisle to get together and see if we can come up with a package that would help low-income families with causing the kind of job loss that the Congressional Budget Office has warned against,” she said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said a vote on minimum wage legislation would come up before this work period ended but now it appears it may slip until after the two-week April recess, which begins on April 11.

The Senate still has to finish work on the unemployment benefits package and then Democrats want to turn to the Paycheck Fairness Act next week. That would leave little time for minimum wage legislation.

“It's undetermined at this stage whether we can have a vote on minimum wage next week,” Reid told reporters Tuesday.

The delay could help Collins round up more support for a possible compromise.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who is facing a competitive re-election race, said the details of Democratic legislation raising the minimum wage to $10.10 need to be reviewed.

“I definitely believe that we need an increase in the minimum wage. I do not believe that $10.10 an hour is too high to aspire to but how quickly we get there and what increments, the tipped wage, how that should be handled — who should get paid the tipped wage and who shouldn’t. There are a lot of questions about that and some of those discussions are going on,” she said.

Landrieu said she would vote for $10.10 an hour but added “we need some discussion about how we slowly get to $10.10.”

The first hurdle to passing the Democratic legislation will be to muster 60 votes to proceed to the measure.

Collins warned that Reid will not get enough Republican support unless he promises to allow amendments to the minimum wage bill.

“That depends on whether or not Sen. Reid is going to allow amendments and so far he hasn’t said,” she said.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Reid’s deputy, said Democratic leaders have yet to decide how to handle the process for considering the bill.