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WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republicans blocked an election-year Democratic bill on Wednesday that would boost the federal minimum wage, handing a defeat to President Barack Obama on a vote that is sure to reverberate in this year’s congressional elections.
The measure’s rejection, which was expected, came in the early months of a campaign season in which the slowly recovering economy — and its impact on families — is a marquee issue. It was also the latest setback for a stream of bills this year that Democrats have designed to cast themselves as the party of economic fairness.
The legislation 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.
“Millions of American workers will be watching how each senator votes today. To them, it’s a matter of survival,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said before the vote.
He pointedly added, “For Republicans, this vote will demonstrate whether they truly care about our economy.”
Republicans, solidly against the Democratic proposal, say it would be too expensive for employers and cost jobs. As ammunition, they cite a February study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that estimated the increase to $10.10 could eliminate 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.
“This is all about politics,” said No. 2 Senate GOP leader John Cornyn of Texas. “This is about trying to make this side of the aisle look bad and hard-hearted.”
The vote was 54-42 in favor of allowing debate on the measure to proceed, six votes short of the 60 that Democrats needed to prevail. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., was the only Republican to cross party lines and vote “yes.” Reid switched his vote to “no,” which gives him the right to call another vote on the measure. No other Democrats opposed the bill.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who has been seeking a deal with other senators on a lower figure than $10.10, said Wednesday that she will continue that effort.
Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who usually sides with Democrats, said he too favors finding middle ground.
But Democratic leaders have shown no inclination to do that — a view shared by unions that favor an increase and business groups that oppose one.
“We’re not going to compromise on $10.10,” Reid told reporters after the vote.