WASHINGTON -- While they're willing to haggle over the finer points of a minimum wage hike, congressional Democrats said Tuesday that they will not lower their nominal proposal of $10.10 per hour as some Republicans have asked, saying they don't want to lock in a wage floor that's too low.
"We're willing to negotiate," Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), who proposed the minimum wage bill in the Senate, said at an event hosted by the Economic Policy Institute. "But $10.10 is a bottom line. We cannot go below that."
With the backing of the White House, Harkin and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) have proposed raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour by 2015 and pegging it to inflation. But for now, most of the bargaining power rests with Republicans. Harkin suggested Tuesday that Senate Democrats don't yet have the 60 votes necessary to block a filibuster, and leaders in the GOP-controlled House have shown little appetite for a minimum wage boost, claiming it would burden businesses.
But with midterm elections on the horizon, Democrats are eager to make the minimum wage a wedge issue, and some Republicans may prefer to see a raise resolved ahead of tight congressional races later this year. Harkin said the Senate will take up the measure sometime after next week. Miller noted the challenge of actually getting a vote on the bill in the House this year, but he said that he was confident Democrats would peel off more Republicans in the coming months and that public pressure could compel a vote.
"At the end of day, I don't think you're going to ask your caucus to take into the election the killing of the minimum wage," he said. The idea of raising the minimum wage tends to poll quite well, including across party lines, with generally about two-thirds of respondents supporting it.
In the past, minimum wage hikes have been paired with business tax cuts to make them more palatable to conservatives and industry lobbies. Harkin said Tuesday that in recent talks, Democrats have shown a willingness to include a tax writeoff on equipment for small businesses.
But like the $10.10 number, Harkin and Miller said they wouldn't be willing to forego the indexing component of the bill. Currently, the federal minimum wage is not tied to an inflation index, as it is in ten states. Indexing the minimum wage would raise it with the cost of living each year and obviate the need to legislate higher minimum wages every few years.
Harkin said Tuesday that he believed Democrats were already "over the hurdle" with enough Republicans on the cost-of-living issue. A few Republicans, he said, have floated the idea of indexing a new minimum wage, but starting it at $9.
"Some Republicans have already agreed to that concept," Harkin said. "The question is at what level."
Democrats proposed $10.10 in order to put the minimum wage near its historical high of the late 1960s. (President Barack Obama initially put forth a $9 proposal, but later put his weight behind the higher number.) Harkin and Miller argued that setting a $9 wage floor and pegging it to inflation in perpetuity would establish a "sub-minimum wage" that was artificially low.
"We cannot -- we cannot put into law -- a permanent sub-minimum wage," Miller said. "It cannot be the right answer for a dynamic American economy."
The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 and hasn't been raised since 2009, after the last in a series of increases signed into law by President George W. Bush took effect. While the federal minimum wage has held steady, 19 states and the District of Columbia now have minimum wages that are higher.
The Harkin-Miller proposal also includes a measure that would raise the minimum wage for tipped employees. In states that don't mandate a higher level, employers can pay tipped workers as little as $2.13 per hour, leaving gratuities to make up the difference between that and the standard minimum wage. Due to heavy lobbying from the restaurant industry, the $2.13 tipped minimum wage has not been raised in two decades.