WASHINGTON (PAI) -- By a 54-42 vote on April 30, the Senate tried to open debate on labor-backed legislation to raise the nation's minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2016. But its Democratic sponsors needed 60 votes to start debate, and got six fewer than that, so the effort failed and the wage hike bill died, for now.
Forty-one Senate Republicans voted to block debate on the minimum wage hike, as did Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who tactically switched his vote at the last minute to be on the "winning" side and thus able to bring the minimum wage hike up again in coming months.
Other Senate Democrats, except absent Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., voted to open debate, as did both independents, and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn. Three Republicans were also absent. More than 20 states, tired of waiting for a dysfunctional Congress to act, have raised their own minimums. Minnesota, Maryland and Connecticut did so in the last two months.
Defeat did not faze sponsoring Senate Labor Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. He has promised backers of the hike that he would bring it up a second time and a third if it failed. If it fails three times, Harkin said early in April, he'd bring it to the voters in November.
But it disappointed union leaders, and leaders of civil rights and women's groups, whose members campaigned for the hike.
"With this vote, America can make a clear moral judgment about where its political leaders stand," said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. "This issue deserves more than a partisan response. Raising the minimum wage is bigger than politics. It's the right thing to do. It will create jobs and grow our economy. Politicians are elected to represent their constituents. A 'yes' vote is the way to prove it." Other union leaders agreed with Trumka.
The measure would have raised the wages of millions of workers, most of them working women and many of them single mothers. The minimum wage would have risen in three 95-cents-per-hour steps and it then would have been indexed to inflation. It's now $7.25 hourly.
The bill also would have raised the wage for tipped workers, now $2.13 an hour, in stages to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage. The tipped workers' minimum hasn't risen since 1991 and the regular minimum was last raised almost a decade ago.
Labor's lobbying ranged from mass rallies on Capitol Hill - the latest campaign occurred two days before the vote - to a "raise the wage" bus tour through Northeastern and Midwestern states, concentrating on the states and districts of recalcitrant Republicans, and a joint letter among 255 civic and religious groups advocating a minimum wage hike.
"A raise in the minimum wage is desperately needed because pay for America's workers remains stagnant, while the cost of living continues to rise," the letter said. "In 2007, Congress raised the federal minimum wage by $2.10 per hour to $7.25 as a first step toward achieving its purpose as an anti-poverty measure. Had the federal minimum wage kept pace with the cost of living over the past 40 years, it would be $10.71 per hour today. Instead, the current hourly rate of $7.25 translates to an annual income of just $15,080 per year for full-time work, which is below the poverty line for a family of three."
The letter added that a review of 40 years of studies of the impact of past minimum wage hikes showed virtually no job losses from minimum wage increases, contrary to business and conservative assertions. But the arguments did not sway the GOP or its business backers, led by the National Restaurant Association. NRA's members are the lowest-paying sector of the U.S. economy, federal data show.
The defeat led Service Employees President Mary Kay Henry to call the vote "another sad chapter in the history of obstructionism in the U.S. Senate."
"Raising the minimum wage for 28 million workers should be a no-brainer, yet a minority of senators prevented it from going forward. In the face of such obstructionism, Sens. Reid and Harkin deserve credit for keeping this important issue in the national spotlight," she added.
"Workers have been unable to share in the fruits of their labor because corporations are hoarding profits and holding down wages. Some senators may disagree, but people who work full-time should be able to support their families and live off their wages. Simply put, America needs a raise," Henry concluded.
Saru Jayaraman, president of the Restaurant Opportunities Center - which is organizing and represents the lowest-paid workers - blasted the Senate and said it would take the fight, especially to replace the lower tipped minimum with the regular minimum, to states.
"Congress is at the beck and call of corporations," she said. The minimum wage hike foes include "Fortune 500 restaurant companies that belong to the National Restaurant Association-a corporate lobby that ensures the restaurant industry is home to the lowest-paying jobs in the country year after year, and gets away with telling taxpayers to pick up the tab for their poverty wages.
"The public overwhelmingly supports raising the minimum wage. The majority of small business owners supports raising the minimum wage. An increase to the regular and tipped minimum wage is absolutely going to happen," she declared.
Signers of the pro-minimum wage letter before the vote included the Coalition of Labor Union Women, the Steel Workers, the Teamsters, AFSCME, the AFL-CIO, 9to5, AFT, the Asian-Pacific American Labor Alliance, Interfaith Worker Justice, the UAW, Jobs With Justice, the Labor Coalition for Latin American Advancement, the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the National Education Association, the National Organization for Women, the Service Employees and the Restaurant Opportunities Center.
Photo: Give America a Raise website.