On The Hill And Off It, Two Different GOP Positions On Minimum Wage

Prominent Republicans — including former presidential candidates Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Tim Pawlenty — have endorsed a minimum wage hike in recent weeks. And in Vermont, lawmakers approved the nation's highest statewide minimum wage, in a deal brokered by a Republican state senator. Nevertheless, a nationwide increase faces solid Republican opposition in Congress.

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And I'm Melissa Block. Fast food workers around the country staged demonstrations today, calling for a pay raise to $15 an hour. This next story is about flipping politics, though, not just burgers. President Obama's own push to boost the nation's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour has met stiff opposition from Congressional Republicans. But outside of Congress, some Republicans say it's about time low-wage workers got a raise. NPR's Scott Horsley has more.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Mitt Romney doesn't often agree with President Obama, at least not publicly. But the 2012 Republican presidential nominee made headlines last week, when he told MSNBC the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is too low.

MITT ROMNEY: I think we ought to raise it. Because, frankly, our party is all about more jobs and better pay. And I think communicating that is important to us.

HORSLEY: That view was echoed by two other former Republican presidential hopefuls: Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum. Santorum told MSNBC Republican opposition to a minimum wage hike is hurting the party with the kind of working-class voters it needs to attract.

RICK SANTORUM: Let's not make this argument that, you know, we're for the blue collar guy but we're against any minimum wage increase ever. It just makes no sense.

HORSLEY: Indeed, polls show most Americans support a higher minimum wage. A Gallup Poll in March put the figure at 71 percent. Judy Conti of the National Employment Law Project, which advocates for low-wage workers, says that support cuts across party lines.

JUDY CONTI: It's really only in the halls of Congress and in state legislatures that raising the minimum wage is a partisan issue. When you ask the average person, they understand that in today's economy, we can't expect people to work for 7.25 an hour.

HORSLEY: In the past, Congressional Republicans have at times supported a jump in the minimum wage. Forty percent of House Republicans and nearly all GOP Senators voted yes the last time Congress approved an increase in 2007. This year, though, Congressional Republicans are almost unanimous in their opposition. Senate Republicans blocked a vote on a wage hike two weeks ago, with only one member willing to even consider debate. Opponents point to a forecast from the Congressional Budget Office which found raising the wage could cost an estimated half-million jobs. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell accused the bill's backers of running fresh out of ideas to boost the economy.

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Washington Democrats' true focus these days seems to be making the far left happy, not helping the middle class.

HORSLEY: After that vote, President Obama scolded Republicans for denying a pay raise to some 28 million people.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: If there's any good news here, it's that Republicans in Congress don't get the last word on this issue, or any issue. You do - the American people, the voters.

HORSLEY: Voters are already collecting signatures to put minimum wage hikes on the ballot this fall in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. And last weekend, lawmakers in Vermont agreed to a plan that would gradually raise that state's minimum to $10.50 an hour, the highest statewide figure in the country. The Vermont plan was brokered by a Republican state senator, Kevin Mullin. He says Vermont businesses were initially alarmed by the size of the pay raise, but once lawmakers agreed to a four-year phase in period, the businesses went along.

STATE SENATOR KEVIN MULLIN: They were very receptive. What they said is they couldn't handle a large jump all at once. But if you gave them time and you allowed them to budget accordingly, that they could live with a phased-in approach.

HORSLEY: Half-a-dozen states have passed similar laws this year. Judy Conti of the National Employment Law Project thinks Congress will eventually agree to a national increase.

CONTI: At a certain point in the minimum wage fight, the Republicans start to realize that this is a losing political issue for them and they begin stepping in to broker compromises, to come on board.

HORSLEY: So far, Congressional Republicans show little signs of bending, no matter how much encouragement they're getting from party leaders outside the capitol. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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