May 01, 2014
Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King say they will not back down from their efforts to raise the federal minimum wage despite a setback Wednesday when Senate Republicans blocked further debate on the measure.
Democrats tried to win approval for a new minimum wage of $10.10 an hour on Wednesday, but Republicans said that’s too much for employers to absorb and could cause the loss of a half-million jobs across the U.S.
The legislation, proposed by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would have gradually raised the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 an hour to $10.10 over a period of 30 months, with automatic annual increases built in to account for inflation, according to The Associated Press.
Collins, a Republican who has been meeting with a group of Democrats and Republicans, said she intends to broker a compromise that would raise the minimum wage to a level that both parties find acceptable.
King, an independent, said he plans to work with Collins and the bipartisan group of senators that is expected to meet this week.
Wednesday’s 54-42 vote to continue debating Harkin’s legislation fell six votes short of the 60 needed to continue the debate.
All but one voting Republican voted no, including Collins. She said she was frustrated because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, had said he would not allow any changes to Harkin’s bill.
“We are not going to compromise on locking people into poverty, $10.10 is the bare minimum,” Reid was quoted as saying by CQ Roll Call, a nonpartisan congressional news agency.
Each state has the authority to set a minimum wage that is higher than the federal rate.
Maine’s minimum wage is $7.50 and hour, 25 cents higher than the current federal minimum. If the federal minimum is increased to more than $7.50, Maine will have to follow suit.
A new wage study by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, based on the third quarter of 2013, puts Maine’s average weekly wage at $735. The U.S. average is $922.
Addressing her Senate colleagues after Wednesday’s vote, Collins said they have to find middle ground. “There is a huge area for compromise here, between $7.25 and $10.10,” she said.
Collins cited a report from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office that said raising the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour could lead to a reduction in total employment of about 500,000 workers, most of whom would be low-income employees.
However, the same report said an increase to $10.10 would produce a higher income for 16.5 million low-earning people, the AP reported.
In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama proposed a $9 minimum wage.
“I recognize how difficult it is for anyone who is trying to make ends meet on the minimum wage, and I believe it should be increased,” Collins said in a statement released after Wednesday’s vote.
King said he voted in support of the $10.10 hourly minimum wage but would be willing to work on a compromise if it would help his constituents.
“It’s a core American principle: If you work hard then you deserve a fair shot at making a good living, but it seems like we’re moving further and further away from what used to be such a simple truth,” King said in a statement released by his staff. “Far too many responsible, hardworking Americans struggle to make ends meet – even live in poverty – because the minimum wage simply isn’t keeping pace with the soaring cost of living.”
Reached by telephone Wednesday night in Washington, King said that getting Congress to raise the minimum wage won’t be easy. He said there are Democrats who are locked into the $10.10 proposal and Republicans who don’t want any change.
“I would hate to walk away with nothing,” King said. “Just say that we did an hourly minimum of $9.25. That would mean an extra $80 a week or $4,000 a year for a family. That’s meaningful.”
King said he is not set on any particular hourly rate but “it has to be $9 or more.”
Statistics provided by the U.S. Department of Labor, effective Jan. 1, show that minimum wages vary widely from state to state.
The state of Washington has the highest minimum hourly wage, at $9.32. Connecticut’s minimum rate is $8.70 while Massachusetts’ is $8.
Ten states, including Vermont, have minimum wages that are linked to the consumer price index. The minimum wages in those states typically increase each January.
Wednesday’s vote in the Senate made it clear to Collins and King that an important issue for low-earning individuals and families could get lost in partisan politics.
Democrats argued that a $10.10 minimum by 2016 would have pushed a family of three above the federal poverty level – a level that minimum wage earners have not surpassed since 1979.
“This is all about politics,” Senate Republican leader John Cornyn of Texas told the AP. “This is about trying to make this side of the aisle look bad and hard-hearted.”
In his prepared statement, King said, “This issue is too important to fall victim to partisan, election year politics. ... I’m going to push forward to find common ground with my colleagues and hope to strike a compromise that will increase the minimum wage. It would be shameful to walk away from this session without any progress.”
Collins said in a statement, “Today’s vote was an attempt to score a political point, but it doesn’t move us any closer to raising the minimum wage.”
Collins’ opponent in this year’s election, Democrat Shenna Bellows, criticized Collins for her vote against Harkin’s proposal, saying in a prepared statement, “Republicans in Washington clearly don’t understand what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck, especially when even those paychecks aren’t enough. It’s unconscionable that career politicians like my opponent, Republican Susan Collins, who are earning $174,000 a year, voted against the interests of the working class.”