In an election year, it's a dream issue for the Democrats: The Republican-controlled Congress has not raised the federal minimum wage in nine years, despite strong public support for an increase. Wednesday, the Senate voted down a Democratic proposal to raise the minimum wage, by a vote of 52 to 46, and also struck down a Republican version that included provisions the Democrats consider poisonous.
At the current minimum wage, $5.15 an hour, a full-time worker would earn $10,712 a year, which is below the federal poverty line for a family of three. The Democrats propose an hourly increase of $2.10, and promise that if they take over control of Congress after the fall elections, they will raise the minimum wage on their first day in power.
The public backs the Democrats. An April survey by the Pew Research Center shows 83 percent of the public favors raising the minimum wage by $2. That figure includes 72 percent of Republicans, and 76 percent of people with household incomes of $75,000 or higher.
So why don't the Republicans just allow an increase and deprive the Democrats of a central campaign issue? Because it's a bad policy that would, in fact, take jobs away from those most in need, they say. The business lobby agrees.
But, say GOP analysts, it's a tough issue to explain to voters – and therefore easy for Democrats to demagogue.
"It's like drug prices and gasoline prices, where it's easy to characterize the underlying company as evil," says Michael Franc, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation. "Those, plus minimum wage, are the most susceptible to the passions of the moment, and politicians don't want to go home and have to explain why this [a higher minimum wage] might hurt the people it's supposed to help. The moment you start explaining, you're losing."
Most dangerous to Republicans would be an argument that links raises in congressional salaries to a minimum wage that hasn't budged.
"They have to be very, very careful not to open themselves up to the charge that they're out of touch," Mr. Franc adds.
Most economists agree that raising the minimum wage, currently earned by 5.8 percent of the workforce, costs jobs. Economist Thomas Sowell cites a survey finding 90 percent of US economists agree that a higher minimum wage reduces employment among low-skilled workers.
Economists who disagree point to research showing no negative impact on employment when wages have gone up as required by law. Studies by David Card of the University of California at Berkeley and Alan Krueger of Princeton University found that to be the case when they examined increases in state minimum wages.
The liberal Economic Policy Institute (EPI) says new economic models looking specifically at low-wage labor markets help explain the lack of job loss after minimum-wage increases. These models factor in money-saving moves by employers, such as raising productivity and lowering training costs, EPI says.
To Democrats, it boils down to a question of morality and fairness. "This is an issue about the dignity of workers in this country that do hard and difficult work – that are teachers' aides, work in our nursing homes, clean out the great buildings of American commerce," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, speaking Tuesday.
Just before Wednesday's vote, he gestured to the GOP side of the aisle, and said, "Don't talk to us about family values. This is it." Senator Kennedy then referred to congressional salary increases amid refusals to increase the minimum wage, calling it "obscene."
Sen. Michael Enzi (R) of Wyoming, chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, replied: "Senator Kennedy said that minimum-wage jobs keep workers in poverty. I agree. We need higher skills in this country."
"We think that free enterprise can work and states' rights can work. States are already changing the minimum wage to fit the needs of their state. People need to think of more training a little bit or moving a little bit to get out of the minimum wage," he added.
Twenty-one states – home to at least half the US population – have minimum wages higher than the federal standard.
After Wednesday's vote, Kennedy found a bright spot, even in the defeat of his measure: eight Republican votes in support of his position. "We have doubled the number of Republicans who supported the minimum wage this time. We may have to wait until November, when Democrats take control.... One of the first acts of legislation will be a freestanding minimum-wage bill."
• Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.