WASHINGTON — The Senate voted Wednesday not to consider legislation that would have raised the federal minimum wage for the first time in five years, to $10.10 an hour.
The 52–42 vote did not clear the 60-vote filibuster-proof threshold needed to begin debate in the Democratic-controlled chamber — a result of near unanimous Republican opposition. Only one Republican lawmaker present, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, voted to open debate.
The proposal, a top priority for the Obama administration's efforts to combat income inequality, would have gradually lifted the current wage floor — set at $7.25 an hour in 2009 — over 30 months, giving a raise to approximately 30 million workers, according to the legislation’s backers.
The decision to bring the proposal up for a vote on the Senate floor by Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was widely seen as an election year maneuver to illustrate Democratic commitment to working families and bruise Republicans for being out of touch with the plight of laborers.
"Millions of American workers will be watching how each senator votes today," Reid said Wednesday. "To them, it's a matter of survival."
The measure’s proponents argued that the minimum wage has less buying power today as a result of inflation than it did in 1968, when the $1.60 minimum was at its purchasing peak.
“The fact that in America there are full-time working mothers and fathers who must juggle two to three jobs just to provide food and shelter for their children is unconscionable,” Reid said earlier in the floor debate Tuesday. “Now, before any sulking billionaires get upset and pen an op-ed labeling me a collectivist, let me be clear: this is a question of fairness. Do we believe it is fair that a fellow American who works full time be paid less than a livable wage?”
Congressional Democrats and the White House have also argued that with corporate profits soaring and worker wages scraping bottom, keeping the minimum wage at its current level amounts to a form of corporate welfare while low-wage workers turn to government assistance programs.
“It is unconscionable to me that this is a place where citizens can labor with great vigor and honor and integrity, and still find themselves falling behind,” said Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., on Tuesday. “They find themselves falling on the government and relying on programs that taxpayers subsidize."
Conservative opponents, meanwhile, argued that a minimum wage hike would result in businesses laying off workers, dealing another blow to a still-fragile economy. The argument was bolstered by a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. It concluded that while a minimum wage hike would lift 900,000 workers out of poverty, it could also result in the loss of 500,000 jobs.
“It will hurt more people than it helps,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, on the Senate floor Wednesday. “It would be great if we lived in a world where Washington can dictate what wages will be and all of a sudden peace, love and happiness will break out.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that disregarding the effect on employment proved that Senate Democrats were really the ones who were out of touch and trying to appease their base.
“Washington Democrats often hurt the people that they claim to be fighting for. When it comes to so many of their proposals, Washington Democrats seem to prioritize the needs of the far left over the needs of the middle class,” he said.
Among economists, there is disagreement about how significant an impact minimum wage increases have on jobs. John Schmitt, a senior economist with the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research, pointed out that economic calamity has never followed when the federal minimum wage was increased. Moreover, he said, 21 states have minimum wages higher than the federal floor, many implemented over the past year, with even more states considering hikes this legislative session.
“The minimum wage is a simple and effective policy. We have ample experience with it. We have increased the federal minimum wage 22 times,” he said. “That repeated experience points very clearly to the fact that it’s easy to administer, compliance is high, and it’s also very clear that there’s little or no impact on employment.”
The failed bill joins a long list of Democratic-backed legislation in the trash heap, unable to overcome partisan roadblocks in Congress, particularly in an election year when both parties appear to be more interested in drawing policy contrasts than getting legislation across the finish line.
Still, the Obama administration vowed to keep pressing the issue.
“Progress is about persistence,” said Labor Secretary Tom Perez.