"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.
"I can't give you a number, but I'm confident" Democrats won't succeed, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, his party's vote-counter, said after GOP senators met Tuesday.
Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, one of the few Republicans considered potentially willing to let debate begin, said Tuesday she expected to oppose the legislation, saying it would hurt companies. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee was the only Republican to publicly state he probably would vote to allow the bill to be considered.
Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who faces a tough re-election and has said the $10.10 increase is excessive, will miss Wednesday's vote. He will be in Arkansas due to deadly storms there, an aide said.
The legislation is opposed by business groups including the National Council of Chain Restaurants and the International Franchise Association. The National Restaurant Association has hundreds of members at the Capitol this week lobbying lawmakers on several issues, including opposition to a higher minimum wage.
Also opposed were conservative organizations including Heritage Action and Americans for Prosperity, which is backed by Charles and David Koch. The billionaire brothers are spending millions this year to unseat congressional Democrats, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and his allies are casting them as unfettered villains.
Wednesday's vote seemed sure to add minimum wage to a scrap heap of Democratic bills that had a shared theme of economic fairness.
Others that have splattered against GOP roadblocks 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.
Even if the minimum wage bill survived the Senate, opposition from Republicans running the House made it unlikely that chamber would debate it this year.
Underscoring the political value they envisioned from the minimum wage fight, Harkin and other Democrats said if the measure was defeated Wednesday, the Senate would vote on it again this year.
According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, about two-thirds of the 3.3 million people who earned $7.25 an hour or less last year worked in service jobs, mostly food preparation and serving.
More than 6 in 10 of those making $7.25 or under were women, and about half were under age 25. Democrats hope their support for a minimum wage boost will draw voters from both groups — who usually lean Democratic — to the polls in November, when Senate control will be at stake. The GOP's hold on the House is not in doubt.
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 their hourly earnings with tips total at least $7.25.
The minimum wage was first enacted in 1938 and set at 25 cents.
Congress has passed nine laws slowly increasing it, including one each decade since the 1980s. The minimum has been $7.25 since 2009.
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