WASHINGTON -- At a recent conference meeting, Senate Democrats eager to see the federal minimum wage increased from $7.25 an hour were presented with a proposal. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) suggested that Democrats could offer a trade to their Republican colleagues: In exchange for agreeing to legislation authorizing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, Heitkamp said, Democrats could demand that Republicans consent to raising the wage floor.
Several Democratic aides, who confirmed that Heitkamp made the proposal, say she mentioned a minimum wage increase as one of several items the party could extract from Republicans in exchange for backing the pipeline.
"Her pitch was basically we should use Keystone as a chit to trade for other things," said one aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
The idea was dismissed without much discussion, another aide said, since the majority of Senate Democrats don't share Heitkamp's fervent desire to see the pipeline built.
Nevertheless, the episode was a revealing one, raising questions about the party's ability to enact its legislative priorities with the opposition in power. It also fed into growing concerns that, absent some form of action, Democrats risk being outmaneuvered by Republicans on one of their bread-and-butter issues.
Since early 2013, Democrats have been pushing to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour and tie it to inflation so that it increases each year. But outside groups and several sources on the Hill have begun fretting that GOP moderates in the Senate could make a savvy play to draft and pass a watered-down minimum wage bill of their own.
According to several Senate sources, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) has been exploring just such an idea. She tried to team up on a minimum wage deal with moderate Democrats in the last Congress. But her proposal failed to win over Democrats who thought it wasn't bold enough and who worried that their collaboration would muddy one of the sharpest election-year attacks that the party had at its disposal against Republicans.
With the election now over, Collins is making another play, according to several sources on the Hill. Her proposal includes an incremental wage hike to $9 per hour over three years and would not be tied to inflation. It would also not affect tipped workers, like restaurant servers -- a fear for many progressives, since the tipped minimum wage has been frozen for two decades at $2.13.
"I have already said that I would support, and indeed proposed last year, an increase in the minimum wage, in steps, up to $9 an hour," Collins told HuffPost on Tuesday.
The plans are in such early stages that some of the usual suspects in the Senate are not yet privy to them.
"I would look at any piece of legislation, but I haven't heard of any proposal or seen anything like that," said Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), who is up for re-election in 2016.
But Democrats are already worried that if discussions progress, they could splinter the party on substantive and strategic grounds. Should lawmakers who favor a $10.10 minimum wage tied to inflation oppose this proposal and, if so, do they risk allowing Republicans to outflank them?
"Any minimum wage hike is attractive given the state of wages and congressional gridlock, but this is Republicans trying to take an issue that favors Democrats off the table ahead of 2016 while not actually addressing the issue in a real way," said one Democratic strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "This lack of aggressiveness on the economy is what cost Democrats in November and will again next year."
Despite these concerns, some Democrats appear willing to start a conversation.
"I think we definitely have to raise the minimum wage," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.). "I think how we achieve it on a bipartisan basis is subject to negotiations, and Sen. Collins would be a great person to do the talking."
With the backing of labor and community groups, Democrats around the country have recently managed to pass an impressive number of local minimum wage increases through statehouses and the ballot box, even in solidly red states like Nebraska and South Dakota. In fact, for the first time ever, a majority of states -- 29 total -- now have a minimum wage that's higher than the federal one. One Senate aide suggested these successes on the state level have given Democrats little incentive "to take a bad deal" on the federal wage floor.
But local successes don't mean much to the minimum-wage earners in the 21 states that still have a wage floor below the federal one. The federal minimum wage still acts as a powerful baseline, and Democrats are falling further behind their goal as each year passes without an increase. It was already nearly two years ago that Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) -- both of whom have since departed Congress -- first unveiled their $10.10 bill. In the meantime, inflation continues to eat into the proposal.
The last minimum wage hike took place more than five years ago, the last in a series of increases signed into law by President George W. Bush. Those increases came after congressional horse-trading as well, and serve as a reminder that presidents from both sides of the aisle have signed on to the idea.
Politically, the issue currently works to Democrats' advantage. In most polls, two-thirds or more of respondents tend to support a minimum wage hike. Though fewer conservatives back the idea than liberals, the percentage is still significant. Given those dynamics, there is a clear incentive for Republicans running in Democratic-leaning states to cut a deal and take the issue off the proverbial table. That certainly is all the more true during a presidential election year.
But conservatives and many mainstream Republicans have held firm to their objections for years now, citing the potential loss of jobs that could come with a sharp minimum wage hike. One Senate Republican aide told The Huffington Post that he would be surprised Collins' proposal made it far -- not because Democrats might balk at it, but because few others in the GOP tent would embrace it.
"The problem on her side is trying to find another Republican who would vote for it," the aide said.