Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
November 29, 2015

Minimum Wage Prospects Dim, Despite Protests

(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Obama stuck to economic themes when speaking Wednesday in Washington, D.C. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Outside Congress, Democrats and labor unions are fighting for an increase in the federal minimum wage. But inside the Dome, Democrats are strapped for political capital to pass legislation as they engage in a multifront battle against Republicans to extend jobless benefits and protect social programs cut by the sequester.

Even approving unemployment benefits before the end of 2013 is shaping up to be a tough haul for Democrats, who so far have failed to negotiate an extension as part of year-end budget talks. And though senators such as Tom Harkin of Iowa have proposed minimum wage legislation, it’s unclear whether there’s any room to attach such a proposal to pending must-pass bills such as the defense authorization. And there certainly is not a strong desire from the GOP-controlled House to pass a stand-alone bill.

But as Republicans try to avoid discussing the issue of pay minimums, Democrats are increasingly turning to it, boosted by a shift in the White House’s economic talking points and current labor unrest nationwide. On Wednesday, President Barack Obama made boosting minimum pay for American workers one of the cornerstones of a major economic address on income inequality. On Thursday, fast-food workers in 100 cities engaged in a strike over wages, including federal contract workers just a stone’s throw from the Capitol at a McDonald’s in the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum.

“A broad majority of Americans agree we should raise the minimum wage. That’s why, last month, voters in New Jersey decided to become the 20th state to raise theirs even higher,” Obama said in his speech in Washington. “I agree with those voters, and I’m going to keep pushing until we get a higher minimum wage for hard-working Americans across the entire country. It will be good for our economy. It will be good for our families.”

Though Obama highlighted what he believes to be the moral urgency of increasing minimum wage, the overwhelming focus on the Hill has been on how to extend unemployment insurance.

House Democrats held a steering committee hearing Thursday on the economic impacts of canceling federal jobless benefits. The administration has estimated that 1.3 million Americans would be immediately affected by a lapse in benefits if Congress fails to act by the Dec. 28 deadline, with an additional 3.6 million people potentially affected by the end of 2014.

The problem is that there are very few must-pass vehicles remaining this year to carry any provision, let alone social welfare programs that Republicans largely oppose.

Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., and House Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., are not planning to include an extension of jobless benefits as part of their larger budget conference framework. Democrats potentially will need another way, whether by bundling with expiring tax extenders or doctors payments, to approve those benefits.

“This is on top of the resistance to raising the minimum wage, for cutting $40 billion out of food stamps,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said at the hearing on unemployment insurance benefits Thursday. “I mean, how unconscionable can that be? Pell Grants, now wanting to cut Pell Grants, which are providing education for low-income families. … The list goes on and on of the compounding of all of these things that are not really a budget that is a statement of our values.”

Congressional Democrats are now facing the uncomfortable political reality — largely as a result of the budget agreements they have made over the past few years — that they will have to choose which benefits to the poor they prioritize. And that could leave them unable to pass the minimum wage increase Obama is now touting.

An aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said the Nevada Democrat is interested in bringing a minimum wage bill to the floor. And an aide to Harkin, whose bill would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, said the senator is working with Reid to schedule a vote “as soon as possible.”

Progressives are so skeptical that Congress will be able to act on the minimum wage that members of the House Progressive Caucus are urging Obama to work unilaterally without them.

In a letter to the president first reported by National Journal, Reps. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona and Keith Ellison of Minnesota said they believe Obama can and should increase the minimum wage by executive order.

Republicans have said they believe that a federal increase in the minimum wage is unnecessary because certain states have their own laws mandating higher pay and that such a move would unduly burden employers with higher overhead costs.

  • monacall

    This is a diversion. To get everybody off the obozocare retreat…. these people are traitors every last one of them….. all need to be voted out. We need to go to Washington and help them clean out their offices…. all of us take one card board box to Washington that should scare them…..

    • Fleety420 .

      I’d be happy to drive one of the many buses it would take!

  • unclebarb

    Three more years of a lawless and tyrannical democrat party and _resident. There is no labor unrest that hasn’t been manufactured by the white house and unions. They always start the trouble and demand a fix for what they start.
    Impeachment needs to happen.

    • Nick10

      I can tell you guys never received unemployment benefits and/or federal minimum wages.

      The problem with minimum wages is the retail stores who have minimum margins. e.g. McDonalds who have franchised stores owners.

  • James Hicks

    Buying votes isn’t as cheap as it used to be.

  • ivan

    Interesting, everyone seems to be against the democrats and for republicans who so far have done everything possible to further the wealth of the wealthy and cut into anything having to do with the middle class, the poor , and even our vets. Can not wait to see all regulations done away which will further the wealth of big business and further pollute our air. Can not wait to see more tax cuts for the wealthy and those trickle down jobs. Oh yea, that did not happen the last time , not likely too this time either. Of course that pipe line the republicans are pushing for will be great for someone. just not sure who since most of that oil will be shipped out. If anyone thinks not, then consider, there are refiners in the north and west that could handle that oil easily, so why go all the way to the coast and why then enlarge a port to handle it if not shipping it all elsewhere?

  • papal

    We do not need is a hike in the minimum wages. What we need is for the government to quit printing money and destroying the “value” of the dollar. What good is 15 dollars an hour when the dollar is worth a dime.

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