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Democrats trying to make minimum wage a key midterm issue

By Deirdre Walsh, CNN Senior Congressional Producer
updated 10:06 PM EDT, Mon April 7, 2014
  • Democrats opt for procedural maneuver to try to get House vote on the issue
  • They want to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour
  • Democrats want debate over a wage hike to be a key part of their campaign strategy

(CNN) -- Democrats know their push to try to force a vote in the Republican-led House isn't going anywhere. But that's not the point.

It's an election year and Democrats believe blaming Republicans for failing to address the issue will put them on the defensive in November.

House Democrats filed what is known as a "discharge petition" on Wednesday. If they get a majority of members to sign it, Republican leaders must put the Democratic bill increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour on the floor.

Even if all 199 House Democrats signed the petition, it would take roughly 18 Republicans to defy their leaders and press for a vote.

Aides from both parties -- and even some Republicans who say they could support some increase to the minimum wage - acknowledge that isn't going to happen.

But with most the heavy legislative lifting essentially done for the year, Democrats want the debate over whether to raise the minimum wage to be a key part of their strategy to defeat GOP members.

At a retreat earlier this month to map out plans for the year, the House Democratic campaign chief, Rep. Steve Israel of New York, said the November election will come down to voters deciding on the question, "Whose side are you on?"

Democrats believe fighting for a higher minimum wage demonstrates they care about working Americans.

Republicans argue a wage hike would lead to fewer jobs and actually hurt America.

GOP lawmakers and aides say so far the issue hasn't been a top concern of voters, and they insist the November elections will hinge on the sluggish economy and problems their constituents are having dealing with the implementation of the new health care law known as Obamacare.

But the minimum wage issue could prove tricky for Republicans in the fall.

Even though Congress isn't likely to pass anything this year, a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll showed that nearly two thirds of those Americans surveyed support boosting the minimum wage.

The same poll found 77% of Democrats backed increasing the federal minimum wage level to $10.10 per hour and nearly half of Republicans surveyed also supported raising it to that level.

Israel says Republicans are on the wrong side of public opinion.

"Middle class security is the fundamental issue of this election and House Republicans are going to have to go home to their districts and explain to voters why they protected billions in subsidies for big oil companies but they won't give America's middle class a raise," Israel said in a statement to CNN.

Both sides are pointing to a report released earlier this month by the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

Republicans emphasize that it found that mandating a federal minimum wage of $10.10 in the next two years would cost the economy 500,000 jobs.

Democrats are highlighting the part of the report that said increasing the pay rate would help lift 900,000 Americans out of poverty.

Any momentum House Democrats hoped to generate could be blunted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's decision this week to delay a vote on the issue until later this spring.

But an event inside the Capitol on Wednesday with business leaders and advocates pushing for a higher wage rate was aimed at voters around the country, not at lawmakers.

It's a continuation of the political message President Barack Obama has been pushing -- that Democrats are committed to eliminating income inequality.

Obama recently signed an executive order upping the minimum rate for federal contractors to $10.10 an hour.

"Not to have this vote is to abdicate our responsibility that we have to the middle class, the backbone of our democracy. Mr. Speaker, give us a vote!" House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said at the rally.

At their weekly Democratic caucus meeting, two top White House aides huddled with House Democrats to provide statistics and fact sheets they could use at home to demonstrate the economic impact of raising the minimum wage.

Over the coming months, members are planning events in their districts to highlight their efforts to push GOP leaders for a vote.

Democratic candidates will point to the discharge petition in Washington and accuse House Republicans of blocking a vote on a higher minimum wage.

One moderate Republican, Pennsylvania Rep .Charlie Dent, who has been targeted by Democrats in the last several election cycles, told CNN he was open to raising the minimum wage.

He pointed out that he voted in favor the last time Congress upped it in 2007. But he said if Congress acts again, any increase should be paired with other measures that boost job creation.

Another GOP member, Illinois Rep. Adam Kinzinger, says he's willing to debate whether it makes sense to raise the minimum wage.

But "I also really recognize that all the Democrats are trying to do is go like look the shiny red ball - look over here while we have a terrible economy," he said.

Kinzinger said he won't sign the discharge petition and dismissed it as a political move, telling CNN that "it's an attempt to create a pressure point."

Republicans argue the Democratic focus on the minimum wage proves their point -- that the President's domestic program has kept the economy in a stalled state.

"The Democrats policies are keeping people in minimum wage jobs, or worse, costing our economy jobs as Obamacare is doing," House GOP campaign chief Greg Walden said in a written statement to CNN.

He said Republicans will respond to Democratic attacks by talking about their proposals to shift people into better paying jobs that lead to greater opportunities and long term stability.

Pressed on whether using the discharge petition was simply to make a political point, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra told CNN said it comes down to a question a fairness.

"If you work in America you should be paid decently and if you work for the minimum wage you deserve a pay raise. We're interested in having a jobs agenda it would be great if Republicans would join us in that," he said.

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