Minimum wage debate gets maximum of politics as Senate Republicans block increase

04/30/2014 4:33 PM

04/30/2014 6:33 PM

Efforts to raise the minimum wage appear doomed this year, the victim of the kind of bitter partisan bickering that’s become commonplace on Capitol Hill.

The bid to gradually increase the wage, now $7.25, to $10.10, was scuttled by a Senate vote to limit debate. Supporters fell six votes short of the 60 needed, as all but one Republican _ Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker _ cast a vote that effectively blocked consideration.

The 54-42 vote followed what’s becoming a familiar pattern: Congress does little to resolve vexing issues like immigration or overhauling the tax code, takes lengthy breaks, returns and eagerly takes votes on bills designed to showcase partisan positions that have little or no chance of actually passing and everyone knows it.

Some Republicans were talking compromise on the minimum wage Wednesday, but they quickly conceded their effort would go nowhere.

“There’s a lot of room between $7.25 and $10.10,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who was seeking consensus. “Today’s vote is an attempt to score a political point.”

Both parties are playing to their political bases, trying to get supportive voters to the polls in a year when all indications are that turnout will be dismal. That became obvious a few hours after the vote when President Barack Obama held a campaign-style event at the White House. He urged Americans to vent their frustration at the ballot box in November and by contacting lawmakers through social media.

“If there’s any good news here, Republicans in Congress don’t get the last word on this issue. You do,” Obama said. “The American people vote. . . . Don’t get discouraged. Get fired up.”

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney was asked about a compromise, perhaps raising the wage to a level below $10.10. Republicans, he insisted, won’t buy that, either.

“The logic dictates that they don’t support any minimum wage,” he said.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who is facing a potentially tough re-election fight this fall, insisted a $10.10 wage would cost jobs. Democrats, he said, “don’t seem to care that about six in 10 Americans oppose a bill like this if it means losing hundreds of thousands of American jobs. Because Washington Democrats’ true focus these days seems to be making the far left happy _ not helping the middle class.”

What made the minimum wage issue particularly valuable to both parties was data supporting both points of view.

A February report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the increase would have two effects: Most low-wage workers would “receive higher pay that would increase their family’s income, and some of those families would see their income rise above the federal poverty threshold.”

But, the CBO added, “Some jobs for low-wage workers would probably be eliminated, the income of most workers who became jobless would fall substantially, and the share of low-wage workers who were employed would probably fall slightly.” Once fully implemented in the fall of 2016, the CBO said, total employment would probably fall about 500,000 jobs, or 0.3 percent.

In the House of Representatives, a similar partisan battle erupted, though it involved broader topics. The Congressional Black Caucus met for an hour with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the Republicans’ 2012 vice presidential candidate, to take him to task for comments he made on a conservative talk radio show last month that questioned the work ethic of inner-city men. Earlier Wednesday, Ryan chaired a hearing examining progress on the 50-year-old War on Poverty.

“I think we can all agree that Washington isn’t making anybody proud these days,” Ryan said at the hearing. “The official poverty rate is the highest in a generation. And over the past three years, deep poverty has been the highest on record.”

Democrats, though, pointed to Republican-driven budget cuts as a big reason.

“This lowering of the ladder of opportunity and the shredding of the social safety net are the result of a trickle-down ideology obsessed with cutting tax rates for the wealthy at the expense of all other priorities,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the committee’s top Democrat.

Black caucus members shared Van Hollen’s sentiment. After their meeting with Ryan, CBC members said neither side budged in its policy beliefs.

We do agree on a number of things,” said Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, the CBC chair. “We both care about poverty, but we have different approaches.”

Ryan said, “We need to talk about better ideas to get at the root cause of poverty to try to break the cycle of poverty. We will disagree on macroeconomics and budgets and things like that, but hopefully out of a good dialogue we can find some common ground and make a difference.”

Not all black caucus members left the meeting satisfied by what they heard.

“He’s done a tour of the United States and learned a lot,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said of Ryan. “And I think he still has a lot to learn.”

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