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In the Senate today, Republicans blocked a vote on a bill to raise the nation's minimum wage. But don't expect that to be the end of the story. For more than a year now, Democrats, including President Obama, have been pushing to boost the minimum wage. Their latest target is $10.10 an hour. GOP critics argue that would depress hiring in an already-weak job market. But raising the minimum wage is popular with voters and Democrats plan to make the issue a rallying cry between now and the November elections. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Raise the wage, raise the wage...
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: There was a campaign atmosphere in the White House East Room this afternoon, with supporters of a higher minimum chanting raise the wage, and President Obama scolding Congressional Republicans who kept the issue from reaching the Senate floor.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: By preventing even a vote on this bill, they prevented a raise for 28 million hard-working Americans. They said no to helping millions work their way out of poverty.
HORSLEY: Impatient with a federal wage that hasn't budged in nearly five years, some states are acting on their own. Lawmakers in Hawaii voted yesterday to gradually raise that state's minimum to $10.10 an hour, following the lead of Connecticut and Maryland. Similar measures are pending in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Illinois. But Obama and his fellow Democrats insist they're not giving up on an effort to boost paychecks for low-wage workers nationwide.
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: And with the president's own approval rating sagging, Democrats are eager to latch on to an idea that polls suggest voters strongly support.
TIM MALLOY: This could be an important midterm discussion and one of the positive ones on the Democratic side.
HORSLEY: Tim Malloy is with the Quinnipiac poll, which asked people if they'd be more likely or less likely to vote for a Congressional candidate who supports raising the minimum wage. More-likelys outnumbered less-likelys by a two-to-one margin. Support for raising the minimum wage is particularly strong among women voters. And Democratic Senator Patty Murray warns Republicans' opposition could cost them with that important constituency.
SENATOR PATTY MURRAY: It is the equivalent of looking American women in the eye and telling them they don't deserve a living wage. It is telling our middle class families they don't deserve a fair shot.
HORSLEY: But while Democrats focus on the low-wage workers who would benefit from a bigger paycheck, Republicans say they're more concerned about the people who'd be priced out of the job market altogether. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office forecast that raising the federal minimum to $10.10 an hour could result in half a million fewer jobs. Some Republicans say they'd be willing to consider a more modest increase, but Democrats insist they won't compromise. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell argues the Democrats are out of serious ideas.
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: Washington Democrats' true focus these days seems to be making the far left happy, not helping the middle class. They seem to think that they can coast on talking points and stale ideas and that the American people haven't been paying attention to their recent dismal record at actually helping the people they claim to care about.
HORSLEY: The biggest jobs at stake here could be those of a handful of Senators facing close re-election contests in November. Voters in several states may see minimum wage measures on the ballot this fall. And Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who sponsored the federal measure, says today's vote won't be the last.
SENATOR TOM HARKIN: I'm confident that if we don't raise the minimum wage in Congress before the election, the American people are going to speak about this at the ballot box this November.
HORSLEY: Harkin acknowledged the low-income voters most directly affected by the minimum wage are also among the least likely to turn out in midterm elections. But he argues the wage fight could be a prod that drives people to the polls because, he says, it's a pocketbook issue. Scot Horsley, NPR News, the White House.