WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans derailed a Democratic drive Wednesday to raise the federal minimum wage, blocking a cornerstone of President Barack Obama's economic plans and ensuring the issue will be a major feature of this fall's congressional elections.
Facing the threat of a GOP Senate takeover, Democrats have forced votes on a procession of bills designed to amplify their message of economic fairness. Republican senators accused Democrats of playing politics by pushing a minimum wage measure designed to lure voters but too expensive for employers and sure to result in lost jobs and higher inflation.
"This is about trying to make this side of the aisle look bad and hard-hearted, and to try to rescue this midterm election," said No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Cornyn of Texas.
The legislation by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa would increase the $7.25 hourly minimum wage for American workers in three steps until it reached $10.10 after 30 months, with annual increases for inflation afterward. The minimum has been at $7.25 since 2009, with 3.3 million Americans — including disproportionate numbers of women and younger people — earning that figure or less last year.
"We saw this morning a majority of senators saying yes, but almost every Republican saying no to giving America a raise," Obama said in pointedly political remarks at a White House event with low-wage workers. "And then if they keep putting politics ahead of working Americans, you can put them out of office."
All but daring Republicans to vote against the measure, Harkin said before the vote, "Who's going to vote to give these people a fair shot at the American dream? And who's going to vote against it?"
The answer came moments later when senators voted 54-42 to continue debating the legislation — six votes short of the 60 needed to keep the measure moving forward. Every voting Republican but one — Bob Corker of Tennessee — voted no.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada was the only Democrat to vote with Republicans. That was a procedural move that will let Reid stage a future vote on the measure, underscoring the political value Democrats see in it.
Though Obama backed Harkin's legislation, the president proposed a $9 minimum wage in his 2013 State of the Union address. That has fueled talk by lawmakers including Maine's two senators, Republican Susan Collins and independent Angus King, that compromise is possible.
But election-year politics suggests that would be difficult.
Leaders of the GOP-run House have shown no interest in even allowing debate, giving Senate Democrats little incentive to cut a deal. And Obama has recently signed executive orders requiring a $10.10 minimum for many federal contractors, making it hard for him to agree to a lower figure for everyone else.
Polls show that while the overall public favors an increase, Democratic voters strongly support one but Republicans — especially tea party backers — are against it. Powerful interest groups on each side are also against a middle ground, with unions backing a full increase and business groups opposing one.
"We are not going to compromise on locking people into poverty," Reid told reporters, adding later, "We'll compromise, but not on the number."
Republicans in turn point to a report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which estimated that an increase to $10.10 could cost about 500,000 jobs in 2016. They did not mention that the report also found the boost would mean higher incomes for 16.5 million earners and lift 900,000 people out of poverty.
"To pay for the raises, the money has to come from somewhere," said Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo. "So if you like the dollar deal at your fast food, get ready for $1.50."
Instead of a minimum wage increase, Congress should work on bills creating jobs, such as allowing construction of the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada to Texas, Republicans said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said of the bill's supporters: "These are the same Washington Democrats who have been at the helm of the economy for five-and-a-half years, the same ones who have been bragging about a recovery."
Democrats note that if the minimum reached $10.10 in 2016, it would mark the first time since 1979 that a family of three earning the minimum would have surpassed the federal poverty line. They also argue that the minimum wage, which began in 1938 at 25 cents an hour, has fallen well below its peak value. In 1968 when the minimum was $1.60, it was worth $10.86 in today's buying power.
Other Democratic bills that have hit GOP roadblocks this year would restore expired benefits for the long-term unemployed and pressure employers to pay men and women equally. Democrats plan future votes on bills easing the costs of college and child care.
Harkin's bill would also gradually increase the minimum wage for tipped workers like waiters to 70 percent of the minimum for most other workers. It is currently $2.13 hourly, which can be paid as long as workers' hourly earnings including tips total at least $7.25.