Senate Republicans Block Bill To Raise Federal Minimum Wage

One of the Democrats top election themes this year was stopped cold in the Senate on Wednesday. Republicans successfully blocked Democrats from even taking up a bill to raise the minimum wage.

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A central part of the Democrat's strategy heading into the midterm elections is the minimum wage. They'd like to raise it. It's been at 7.25 for years. Chances Congress would raise it this year have always been slim, and yesterday, Senate Republicans blocked a bill to boost the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

NPR's Ailsa Chang has more.

ALISA CHANG, BYLINE: It takes one bottle of body lotion to remind Kaleka Brewster what separates her from people who aren't working minimum wage. Eight ounces of lotion will cost $12.50 at Bath and Body Works, the store where Brewster's been earning 7.25 an hour the past five years.

KALEKA BREWSTER: So, in order for me to buy one bottle of lotion, I have to work a total of two hours to buy one bottle of lotion.

CHANG: Brewster says she thinks about that a lot when she's stocking shelves or ringing up customers - so much so, she felt compelled to travel from Rome, Georgia this week to join hundreds of other workers outside the U.S. Capitol to push for a higher minimum wage.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS CHANTING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) This is what democracy looks like. Show them what democracy looks like.

CHANG: It's not like Brewster's dying to buy lotion with fancy names like Coconut Lime Breeze. She's here because she and her partner, who also works minimum wage, can barely hang on.

BREWSTER: I have a 15-year-old, an eight-year-old and a six-year-old.

CHANG: So she has to work two jobs now, on top of attending Clark Atlanta University as a full-time student. Brewster says it makes no sense how anyone could argue her situation is sustainable.

BREWSTER: I would challenge that individual to live off of minimum wage for 30 days. And if you can live off that minimum wage for 30 days, then we might can have a conversation, you know, about it.

CHANG: But for now, that conversation is over on Capitol Hill. A bill to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour was blocked in the Senate yesterday. Senate Democrats pointed out the bill would be good for business, because people with more spending power would buy more goods, and GDP would grow. They said 28 million workers would get a raise under the bill, more than half of them women. Republicans said they cared about those workers, too, which is why they had to defeat the bill.

Here's Pat Roberts of Kansas.

SENATOR PAT ROBERTS: I just had a phone call from a True Value guy in southeast Kansas who said if something like this passes, I'm going to have to fire three people. They don't want to be fired, and I can't run my shop.

CHANG: Roberts and other Republicans kept citing the Congressional Budget Office this week, which estimated that raising the minimum wage to 10.10 would eliminate 500,000 jobs. But the bill offended Senate Republicans for another reason.

John Cornyn of Texas said this bill had nothing to do with helping people. It was all about politics.

SENATOR JOHN CORNYN: This is about trying to make this side of the aisle look bad and hard-hearted, and to try to rescue this midterm election coming up in November, because they see the president's approval rating going down.

CHANG: Minutes after the vote, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was already crystallizing the message Republicans had sent to America.

SENATOR HARRY REID: They're fighting for the billionaires. We're fighting for the people who are struggling to make a living.

CHANG: Raising the minimum wage is part of an agenda Senate Democrats are calling A Fair Shot for Everyone. It includes legislation to lower the cost of college and a bill to help women obtain equal pay, which was defeated in the Senate last month.

Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York vowed there will be another vote on raising the minimum wage this year.

SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER: To me, this is not only the right thing for our economy, it's a moral issue. And let me just say that we're going to win. We're going to bring this issue back over and over and over again.

CHANG: And if Republicans don't change their minds, Democrat Tom Harkin of Iowa says, beware.

SENATOR TOM HARKIN: Low-income people tend not to vote, but on this - this would be one that they would come out on, because it's a pocketbook issue for them.

CHANG: Of course, even if the bill ever does pass the Senate this year, it faces an even stiffer fight in the Republican-controlled House, which means Kaleka Brewster - and the millions like her - will have to keep finding ways to stretch that 7.25 an hour.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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