04/03/2014 01:48 pm ET Updated Apr 03, 2014

Tom Harkin Asks For One Last Raise Before Retirement

MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Tom Harkin keeps a copy of a D.C. restaurant worker's paycheck in his Capitol Hill office. The Democrat likes to talk about it when he's making his case for a higher minimum wage for tipped workers. The pay stub shows that after tax withholdings, the waiter's pay from the restaurant came out to nothing. All the take-home pay came through tips.

"Zero dollars and zero cents," Harkin told HuffPost. "That's what's happening to people, to tipped workers. Some people say, 'Well, with tips they make a lot more.' Maybe some weeks you do, maybe some weeks you don't."

Harkin, 74, finds himself talking a lot about the minimum wage these days, and he's happy to get down in the weeds on pay practices in the service industry. If you have the time, he'll tell you all about "tip pooling" in restaurants and why he prefers to leave his gratuities in cash when he dines out.

Harkin is lead sponsor of the Senate bill that would raise the wage floor from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour and tie it to inflation. The senator from Iowa is busy trying to corral full support for the bill among his Democratic colleagues, several of whom haven't yet committed to it, while also picking off enough Republicans to make the measure filibuster-proof. Those challenges say nothing of the opposition the measure faces in the GOP-controlled House, where the same legislation is sponsored by Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.).

Like Miller, Harkin isn't seeking another term after this one expires at the end of the year. That makes the minimum wage perhaps the last big legislative fight in his four-decade career as a lawmaker. Despite the obvious and formidable hurdles, Democrats say they believe the measure's popularity will help pressure Republicans facing re-election to support it.

"The voters ought to know which side of the issue you're on before we go into the elections," Harkin said. "Republicans may all vote against it, and that sends a strong signal to the American people about whose side they're on."

Congress typically squabbles over the minimum wage every few years, but this is a little different from times past. By tying the minimum wage to an inflation index so that it adjusts each year, the Harkin-Miller legislation could obviate similar political fights in the future. Harkin and Miller also believe it could rectify what they describe as a two-decade injustice -- the fact that the minimum wage many restaurants have to pay servers has been frozen since the 1990s.

Unless state law dictates otherwise, a restaurateur can claim a "tip credit" on a server and pay the individual just $2.13 per hour, well below the standard minimum wage. If tips don't get the server's earnings to $7.25, the restaurant must make up the difference. Although many servers do make well above the minimum wage, the system has left it to diners to subsidize an increasingly large portion of a worker's salary.

"It's down so low now it's unconscionable," Harkin said. "It's finally dawning on people that we can't go on like this."

The restaurant lobby successfully split the tipped minimum wage from the standard minimum wage long ago, and the $2.13 rate hasn't moved since 1991. The Harkin-Miller legislation would eventually raise the tipped minimum wage to 70 percent of the regular minimum wage. Employers would still have to make up the difference if a server doesn't hit $10.10 per hour with tips.

The National Restaurant Association has opposed the Democrats' current minimum wage measure on the grounds that it would kill food service jobs. There's concern among minimum wage backers that restaurant workers could find themselves carved out once again in a Washington deal.

Harkin, however, said that while he's happy to throw in some sweeteners for the business community, he considers the tipped minimum wage a non-negotiable piece of any deal that emerges. He said he doesn't buy the restaurant lobby's claims of economic fragility, considering the National Restaurant Association has hyped the industry as a resilient bright spot during the weak recovery.

"You can't have it both ways. You just can't," he said. "Why should taxpayers be subsidizing low-wage industries? McDonald's and these franchises are making good money. What's a Big Mac cost these days? So you've got to pay a dime more for one to make sure workers get a raise in the minimum wage. Do you think people are gonna balk at that?"

So far, some of Harkin's own Democratic colleagues have balked at it. Even though the minimum wage polls extremely well -- typically, two-thirds of respondents support raising it, including a sizable contingent of Republicans -- a few Senate Democrats have been leery of throwing their support behind the Harkin-Miller measure. That includes Sens. Mark Warner (Va.), Mary Landrieu (La.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.), all of whom are facing re-election battles.

Earlier this week, the Hill reported that Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) was reaching out to some Democrats to broker a deal with a more modest minimum wage hike, perhaps on the order of $9, which is what the White House originally proposed early last year. Such a raise would boost the paychecks of significantly fewer workers, though it could also minimize any cutbacks employers decided to make on workers' hours.

Harkin so far says he won't support a minimum wage below $10, arguing that it would lock in a "poverty wage" if tied to an inflation index. Earlier this week, he said he was confident he would have all but perhaps one unnamed Democrat on board with $10.10.

After several delays, the Senate may vote on the minimum wage bill this month. Regardless of what the upper chamber does, the bill appears to be going nowhere in the House, where Republican leadership has declared it a job killer. If it comes down to it, Harkin said, Democrats will explore other ways to accomplish the raise, perhaps rolling it into other legislation as has been done in the past.

However it happens, there's a good chance the next wage hike will be signed by the president well after Harkin and Miller have cleared out their offices on the Hill. But even if that's the case, Democrats could give voters something to think about when they head to the polls this fall.

"We as Democrats ought to stand strong for it," Harkin said. "We ought to put it out there and let the chips fall where they will."



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