As President Obama pitched a federal minimum wage increase in Michigan on Wednesday, Senate Democrats were divided over it, pushing off for a third time a planned vote on legislation that would have increased the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 over three years.
The discord has created an opening for Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who has launched an effort to produce a bipartisan minimum wage proposal that is lower than the $10.10 goal set by Democrats and Obama.
Collins told reporters that there is an appetite for her plan among a group of Senate Democrats who are unhappy with the terms of the current $10.10 wage hike plan, which the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office concluded would result in the loss of half a million jobs.
“There are a number of Democrats that I’ve talked to who have expressed interest," Collins said of her bipartisan proposal.
The minimum wage debate has turned into an election year conundrum for Democrats.
Raising the minimum wage receives significant support in the polls, and unions are strong proponents.
It's generally a winning issue for the Democratic party, with Senate and House Democrats using it to anchor their 2014 “fair shot for everyone” agenda.
But hiking the minimum wage gets complicated in some red and swing states, where business groups and others have pushed back against an increase, saying it would eliminate jobs.
As a result, some Senate Democrats, particularly those up for re-election this year, are refusing to get on board with the $10.10 plan, which is authored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa.
There are now enough wavering Democratic lawmakers that the legislation may fail to win even a simple majority in the Senate. That would be a major political defeat for Democrats and would make it harder to blame the GOP for blocking a minimum wage hike.
Among the Democrats who don't like the plan is Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., considered the most vulnerable incumbent. Pryor said he won't back the federal minimum wage hike but he supports a state initiative to raise the Arkansas minimum wage from $6.25 to $8.50 per hour.
The Senate proposal, Pryor told Bloomberg news, is "too much, too fast."
Other wavering Democrats include Sens. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Warner of Virginia. Other Democrats who have shown interest in a lower wage hike plan include Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
With no resolution in sight among Democrats, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has hit the pause button indefinitely on the legislation.
After first proposing to take up the bill in early November, he delayed a vote in March and then pushed off this week's vote. Reid said he might put legislation on the floor next week, but he made no promises.
Meanwhile, Landrieu and other lawmakers uneasy about the proposal are negotiating to reshape it.
“I do not think $10.10 is too high of a number, but I think there are other pieces we should talk about,” Landrieu said.
Landrieu is running in a highly competitive race for re-election. State polling shows a minimum wage increase is popular in Louisiana, but opponents include powerful entities such as the the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry.
Warner is also in a competitive race. A recent GOP poll shows Republican opponent Ed Gillespie just six points behind Warner, although other surveys show Warner leading by double digits.
Warner is playing it safe on the minimum wage issue.
“I strongly support an increase in the minimum wage but I think there are legitimate questions about phase-in periods,” Warner, the former Virginia governor, said Wednesday. “There are questions about rates, there are questions about if you’ve got already existing contracts for a tourist season. These are details we need to work through.”
Collins on Wednesday would not reveal which Democrats are working with her on a compromise plan.
Collins said her wage hike plan would call for tax incentives for small businesses, including a tax credit for hiring veterans and disabled workers. And it would eliminate the Obamacare requirement that employers provide health insurance for those who work a minimum of 30 hours, changing the threshold to 40 hours.
Collins wouldn't say how high the wage hike should go, only that it should be "reasonable."
Democratic leaders at first seemed excited about the effort by Collins to strike a bipartisan deal, which is about the only way Democrats would be able to garner the five GOP votes needed to stop a Republican filibuster.
A Senate-passed minimum wage bill might put pressure on the House, where the Republican majority said they won’t consider a wage increase.
But Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the number-three Democrat, seemed ambiguous Wednesday about whether he backs the Collins effort, saying that most Democrats want the $10.10 minimum and not something lower.
“We are not giving up on that very quickly,” Schumer said Wednesday.
Schumer wouldn’t rule out a compromise, but he suggested Senate Democrats would be content to vote on the bill and let it fall short of the 60 votes because Republicans would mostly be blamed, even if a few Democrats also rejected it.
“The Fair Shot agenda is made to show the difference between the parties,” Schumer said. “We relish that contrast and when the American people see the difference, it is going to become a very significant issue in the fall.”
Collins said she is aware that election politics will shape the outcome of the debate.
“To me, this comes down to whether we want to get a bill that provides an increase in the minimum wage through Congress, without harming our economy and causing thousands of jobs to be lost,” she said, “or, do some members simply want one vote and a political issue.”