How do Democrats counter Obamacare? Batter Republicans on minimum wage. (+video)

Republicans have held vote after vote on Obamacare, partly to stoke the conservative base for this fall's elections. Senate Democrats look set to use the same strategy with a plan to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Their first bid failed Wednesday.

By , Staff writer

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    President Obama is applauded as he arrives at an event on increasing the minimum wage in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday. Earlier, Senate Republicans blocked a bill to boost the federal minimum wage.
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Senate Republicans on Wednesday used a procedural vote to block Democrats from raising the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. But just as Republicans hammer away at the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, day in and day out, expect Democrats to keep pounding at this issue and others related to their agenda of economic fairness.

“There will be a second vote. Then there will be a third. And we’ll get closer to the election, and we’ll see how people feel,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa, who sponsored the bill.

But many Republicans don’t think they’ll feel any pain for holding firm against $10.10, which they see as too high, too fast. (The hourly minimum wage would be raised from $7.25 in three annual steps, and then be indexed for inflation.) More importantly, the increase is a hardship on businesses and thus a job killer, they argue. Polls show that while a large majority of Americans favor increasing the minimum wage, they don’t if the tradeoff means more people out of work.

Recommended: Are the rich getting richer? Take our quiz on inequality and incomes.

The independent Congressional Budget Office reports that a wage increase to $10.10 could cost 500,000 jobs – though it also says that, overall, the increase would move 900,000 people above the poverty threshold.

On Wednesday morning, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky took to the floor to say that 6 in 10 Americans “oppose a bill like this if it means losing hundreds of thousands of American jobs.” He accused Democrats of downplaying the negative effects of a minimum wage increase just as they did the downsides of Obamacare. He pointed to new federal data on Wednesday that showed the US economy slowing to a mere 0.1 percent annualized rate of growth for the first quarter.

“We view any discussion about the minimum wage to be just another opportunity to point out that [Democrats] haven’t gotten the job done,” says GOP pollster Ed Goeas of the Terrance Group in Washington.  A new ABC/Washington Post poll shows that only 28 percent of Americans think the economy is getting better; 71 percent say it’s either getting worse or stagnant. Meanwhile, the president’s approval rating is at 41 percent, the lowest in his presidency.

Democrats counter that Republicans block the increase at their peril. They point to 1996, when the GOP controlled the House and the Senate, and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia swung behind a minimum-wage increase for fear of being punished at the ballot box.

Perhaps more importantly, Democrats believe that the minimum wage and other income inequality issues, such as gender parity in pay, will increase the turnout of Democratic voters – the key to November’s midterm elections – and their ability to retain control of the Senate.

Instead of talking about the recovery, “the more powerful set-up for Democrats’ economic message is the contrast with CEOs and the 1 percent whose incomes have soared, while everyone else works hard just to get by. That reflects the experiences of real people in this economy," says a recent memo by Stanley Greenberg and James Carville, the Democratic pollster and political strategist at Democracy Corps.

Enthusiasm in the Democratic base, which includes a high proportion of unmarried women, is sapped by the economy, they continued. The base needs "something worth voting for." More than half of the nation’s 28 million minimum-wage earners are women.

Democrats say a minimum wage increase will be a draw for them – and beyond that, they see it as good for Americans, businesses, and the economy, as well as a moral issue. The last hike in the federal minimum wage was in 2009, to $7.25, a rate that still leaves people dependent on food stamps and other federal assistance. “Someone can work full time every day, all year long, and they are still in poverty,” said Senator Harkin. “That is not fair.”

The measure failed in Wednesday's vote, 54 to 42. Only one Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, a businessman and former mayor, voted to allow the bill to move to the floor for debate and a final vote. His colleagues felt the bill was a “political exercise,” he said – that is, take-it-or-leave-it legislation with no chance for the minority to offer amendments.

“My thinking was to have three or four days on the floor to talk about those things that would increase people’s wages, that would generate economic growth, was a good opportunity," he told reporters after the vote.  

Republican Sen. Susan Collins, a reliable political bridge-builder from Maine, said that she has agreed with another Democrat to convene a group that will try to forge a compromise bill – one that doesn’t cost 500,000 jobs, she said. Democrats say they are open to discussion, but they will not negotiate the $10.10 number. Anything less would keep people below the poverty rate, they say.

“The middle class is aching,” summed up Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, who is responsible for crafting the election-year message Senate Democrats send. “The minimum wage, better than almost any other issue, graphically illustrates” whose side you are on, the senator said at a press conference after the vote.

“We believe our Republican colleagues will eventually see that, and will have to come around to our side, even if they don’t feel the morality that we all feel about this.” 

That morality zinger shows just how politically loaded this issue has become. Almost like Obamacare.

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