Washington — Democrats and Republicans grappled Wednesday over which party is truly helping American families as the Senate neared a vote on a Democratic election-year bill increasing the federal minimum wage, a measure that seemed all but certain to be defeated.
"Millions of American workers will be watching how each senator votes today," asserted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "To them, it's a matter of survival."
The bill by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would gradually raise the $7.25 hourly minimum to $10.10 over 30 months and then provide automatic annual increases to account for inflation. Democrats argue that if fully phased in by 2016, it would push a family of three above the federal poverty line — a level such earners have not surpassed since 1979.
Republicans, solidly against the Democratic proposal, say it would be too expensive for employers and would cost jobs. As ammunition, they cite a February study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that estimated the increase to $10.10 could have the effect of eliminating about 500,000 jobs — but also envisioned higher income for 16.5 million low-earning people.
"Washington Democrats' true focus these days seems to be making the far left happy, not helping the middle class," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
The debate was playing out half a year from this fall's elections, in which Democrats are struggling to retain their Senate majority and the economy remains a marquee issue.
President Barack Obama has made boosting the minimum wage a top priority. Its rejection would mark a defeat for him and the latest setback for a stream of Democratic bills that stress the campaign-season theme of economic fairness.
Continuing that focus, the White House issued a statement urging the bill's passage and saying the administration wants legislation "to build real, lasting economic security for the middle class and create more opportunities for every hardworking American to get ahead."
Supporters note that the minimum wage's buying power has fallen. It reached its peak value in 1968, when it was $1.60 hourly but was worth $10.86 in today's dollars.
Democrats needed 60 votes to begin Senate debate. To prevail, they would need support from at least six Republicans, which seemed beyond reach.