Already facing heavy Republican opposition, congressional Democrats who support raising the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour now find themselves beating back a less ambitious proposal being considered by a contingent of their own party.
The Hill reported Tuesday that Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was discussing with Democratic senators an alternative plan that would hike the minimum wage by a smaller amount -- a compromise that could potentially give cover to incumbents on both sides of the aisle in an election year. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told the paper he would be open to such a deal.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the sponsor of the original Senate bill, took to the Senate floor on Tuesday morning in part to reiterate the case he's been making for $10.10. Harkin and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who sponsored the companion bill in the House, have been adamant about setting the wage above $10 before tying future increases to inflation, as both bills would do.
The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 and hasn't been raised since 2009.
"Why did we settle on $10.10 an hour? Some people say, 'Why $10.10? Why not $9?'" Harkin said. "I've heard that bandied about a lot. Well, here's why. ... Because we know where the poverty line is. That's why we picked $10.10 -- it gets you above the poverty line."
Though it may sound small, the difference between a $9 minimum wage and a $10.10 minimum wage is significant, for both workers and employers. For a worker currently earning the legal minimum, the former amounts to a 24 percent raise, while the latter gives a far more robust 39 percent raise. A hike to $10.10 would also roughly restore the minimum wage to its historic high of the late 1960s.
A more modest raise to something like $9 would put less money in low-wage earners' paychecks and affect fewer workers. But it would also reduce any negative effects a raise might have on employment levels, which is why the idea may have currency among moderate Democrats and some Republicans. As a hotly debated report from the Congressional Budget Office noted, a smaller increase in the minimum wage would bring smaller consequences, good or bad. It would also meet less resistance from powerful industry lobbies.
A House Democratic staffer told HuffPost that a smaller proposal ran the risk of "locking in" a lower minimum wage in perpetuity, since the bill would tie the new wage to an inflation index.
"If we raised it to something that keeps families below the poverty line and then index it to inflation and stick them there, it doesn't exactly solve the problem we're trying to address," the staffer said.
Harkin insisted Tuesday that his proposed increase of 39 percent, to occur in stages, was in keeping with successful minimum wage raises in the past. Indeed, the last minimum wage hike, signed into law by President George W. Bush, increased it from $5.15 to $7.25 over the course of three years. That was a raise of 40 percent.
"We wanted to get it above the poverty line, index it there, but keep it in the boundaries of what we've done in the past," Harkin said. "It's critical -- critical -- to get it above the poverty line."
This isn't the first sign of disunity among Democrats on a minimum wage number. The original proposal from the White House, laid out in President Barack Obama's 2013 State of the Union address, called for raising the minimum wage to $9 -- a number that many progressive Democrats felt was too low and could handicap them in bargaining with Republicans. Last fall, the president got on board with congressional Democrats' higher proposal.