Senate Democrats, hoping to move beyond the disastrous rollout of the new health care law, plan to pivot to legislation that would increase the federal minimum wage by nearly $3, to over $10 an hour.
Democratic lawmakers met privately Thursday to discuss proposals, including one by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, which would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, a nearly 40 percent increase. It would also would tie wage levels to inflation.
Democratic senators weighed the plan after being deluged with letters and calls from constituents complaining that Obamacare has cost them their chosen health care plans and required hefty premium and deductible increases, in some cases doubling, tripling or quadrupling health insurance costs.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., called the proposed minimum wage increase "long overdue, an important economic issue and a message to working families struggling paycheck to paycheck that we can help."
President Obama is behind the push for a wage increase, senators said. Obama sent his chief economist, Jason Furman, to promote the plan to Senate Democrats Thursday afternoon.
"There is a strong need to adjust the minimum wage to reflect the erosion that it has had since it's last passage," Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., said after the meeting.
Congress last voted to raise the minimum wage in 2007, lifting it from $5.15 to $7.25.
At that time, Republicans backed the increase, leading some Democrats to speculate now that they will get GOP support this time as well.
But the economy has shifted substantially over the past six years and millions of jobs have disappeared. Many Republicans are wary of wage increases that they fear will drive up costs for employers and kill jobs.
Also missing are many of the moderate House Republicans who backed the legislation and pushed for it when Republicans were in the majority just a year earlier.
Boehner in February flatly rejected a federal wage increase after the president made his pitch in his State of the Union address.
"When you raise the price of employment, guess what happens? You get less of it," Boehner said at the time, noting the high unemployment rate. "Why would we want to make it harder for small employers to hire people?"
Some Senate Republicans on Thursday declared their opposition to a wage hike.
"The way you increase wages is by increasing jobs, that is the approach I support," Sen John Hoeven, R-N.D., told the Washington Examiner.
Hoeven said Republicans are crafting a counter proposal to a Democratic wage hike bill that would create more jobs and increase the demand for labor.
"We are working on ideas," Hoeven said.
The plan Obama laid out in his State of the Union address would have raised the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 per hour. But Durbin said the White House now wants that bumped up to just over $10 an hour.
A minimum wage increase could be a difficult vote for some red-state and swing-state Democrats up for re-election in 2014 who won't want to offend local business communities.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., declined to say whether he would back an increase.
"We just started talking," he exclaimed as reporters pursued him down a hallway.
But Reid is planning to move quickly, according to Senate aides, and could have legislation ready "in the next two weeks."
Even while the federal wage rate has remained frozen, states have been raising the minimum wage on their own. New Jersey voted Tuesday to raise the minimum wage to $8.25 an hour beginning Jan. 1. The minimum wage in the District of Columbia is $8.25 per hour. In Virginia and Maryland, it remains $7.25 per hour.