Dems seize on income inequality in 2014
By: Burgess Everett
January 5, 2014 06:59 AM EST
Democrats aren’t wasting any time tackling an issue they are convinced will help them this election year: income inequality.
One of the Senate’s first votes upon returning to Washington from their holiday break Monday will be on a bill reviving emergency unemployment benefits that lapsed at the end of 2013.
The vote marks the first concrete step by Democrats toward a populist economic platform ahead of the November elections. The inequality campaign will intensify later in the year with a push in the Senate to raise the federal minimum wage that will be synced with President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech expected to dig heavily into the issue of economic disparity.
The focus on income inequality builds on the economic themes Obama successfully harnessed to beat Mitt Romney in 2012. Democrats believe they can win again by spotlighting the growing divides between the rich and poor and daring Republicans to oppose legislation aimed at benefiting low-income Americans.
“Our Republican colleagues should take note. Certainly we’re going to build on the progress we’ve made to reduce the deficit, but it is no longer the most important issue that we face,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in laying out Senate Democrats’ agenda for the coming year. “Issues like job creation, minimum wage, and unemployment insurance are going to weigh on the minds of voters far more than Obamacare by the time the 2014 elections roll around.”
For their part, congressional Republicans sound open to an extension of unemployment benefits but only if the $6.5 billion cost of a three-month extension is paid for — a nuanced argument that Democrats hope won’t sound convincing at a time when the number of long-term unemployed is on the uptick. And no matter what Democrats argue, Republicans will seek to keep voters’ focus on Obamacare.
For now, reviving emergency unemployment insurance may have more legislative legs than a federal minimum wage increase, given that the three-month extension has the support of Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), a key development for a bill that will need the support of four more Republicans to break a filibuster.
The lead sponsor of the bill, Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), said he hopes other Republicans from high unemployment states will come around when they “begin to recognize these are real constituents in their home state that have worked very hard.”
“The most encouraging thing, ironically, is the fact that a lot of the stories about people being affected by this are coming out. It turns out these are men and women in their 50s, they’ve worked all their lives,” Reed said. “These are the people that kept working some of the toughest days of the recession.”
Democrats argue seizing on the minimum wage is also key to appearing serious about improving peoples’ lives — and even if legislation fails on the Senate floor as currently expected, the party believes the high-profile vote will augment vulnerable incumbents’ campaigns as Democrats work to defend their five-seat Senate majority.
The Capitol Hill push follows a wave of national polls that show Americans increasingly favor raising the minimum wage, a rate that has stayed put at $7.25 per hour since 2009 for most workers. Few, if any, Republicans are likely to support Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin’s (D) bill to raise the rate to $10.10 an hour, though his legislation could be filled with incentives for small businesses and the wage could be whittled to a more palatable number to entice moderates in both parties.
Democrats see special appeal in spotlighting a rate hike when the road to retaining the Senate runs through red states with Democratic incumbents such as Alaska’s Mark Begich, Arkansas’s Mark Pryor, Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu and North Carolina’s Kay Hagan. Minimum wage issues are particularly poignant in Southern states like North Carolina, Louisiana and Arkansas, all of which have above-average numbers of employees paid at or below the federal minimum wage, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“In all the battleground states, I think that it will not only a rallying cry for the Democratic base but also an important appeal to voters in the middle,” said Matt Canter, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “This is not a 50/50 issue, this is not a 55/45 issue. It’s a 70/30. It puts Republicans squarely on the side of wealthy special interests.”
The congressional spotlight will give the nation’s lowest-paid workers the most attention nationally since Congress last approved a rate hike in 2007 under President George W. Bush, part of massive legislation that included tax cuts. But the minimum wage is also the centerpiece of a larger shift for Senate Democrats away from approving presidential nominees and social legislation and toward fiscal policy.
“The thing that is going to help us keep the Senate is focusing on the economy,” said a Democratic leadership aide.
While most 2014 Democratic candidates are supportive of the liberal Harkin legislation and associated fiscal messaging, their positions aren’t uniform. Begich is a co-sponsor of the $10.10 an hour bill and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, challenging Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R), is making the $10.10 rate a central focus of her campaign.
Landrieu said she wants to raise the wage but isn’t sure how high, while Hagan is simply supportive of the effort generally, an aide said. Pryor has attacked his presumptive 2014 GOP opponent Rep. Tom Cotton (R) for not supporting a wage-rate raise, but Pryor’s support thus far has largely been muted.
So while the precise wage rate they will advocate has yet to be settled, Senate Democrats have decided that tackling the federal minimum wage is a way to reach out to reliable Democratic voters and drive a wedge between them and Republicans.
“It’s the smart substantive position, the smart economic position, the smart humanitarian position. And it is also the smart political position,” the retiring Harkin said in an interview. Running to replace the veteran Democrat is Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley, a co-sponsor of a companion House bill to Harkin’s supported by more than 150 House Democrats.
Top Senate aides and party strategists privately acknowledge that the issue meshes perfectly with their defense of a Southern-tilted 2014 Senate map that has the GOP licking its chops. But lawmakers are loathe to admit that the issue could be an electoral tool and insist their focus on it is about good policy, not politics.
“I don’t think it’s being offered for my election. I think it’s being offered because it’s clear that the income inequality in the country is moving in the wrong direction,” Landrieu said in an interview. “Even people that don’t work at the minimum wage understand that it’s important to pay people fairly. What impact it has on the election, I don’t know.”
The GOP has the hefty backing of the business community in opposing a rate increase, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which says any federal increase would weigh heavily on small businesses and must be offset by financial relief for them. Another key opponent is the National Restaurant Association, a heavy-hitting industry group that is historically a generous benefactor to Republican candidates.
Known colloquially as “the other NRA,” the organization argues that raising the minimum wage increases unemployment — also a commonly held belief among Republicans.
“Every time you raise the minimum wage, fast food restaurants mechanize more. They lay off people,” said Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), who is facing Landrieu next year in the deep red state. “If your cost is labor and you raise your cost of labor, it makes the cost of investing in a machine to do that manual labor more attractive.”
In Arkansas, Pryor may be able to stay quiet on the issue and still benefit from its resonance: A statewide ballot initiative is brewing to raise the rate, which Democratic strategists believe will lead to a voter registration surge and stronger turnout regardless of how closely Pryor’s campaign embraces the national push.
In Kentucky, Grimes’s campaign has made major hay of Kentuckians’ support for raising the minimum wage and McConnell’s opposition historically to nationwide rate increases. McConnell’s campaign manager has dismissed Grimes’s focus on the wage as “class warfare” and “divisive,” but it certainly does poll well: A December survey by Public Policy Polling found that 54 percent of Kentucky voters support raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour — 23 percentage points higher than the favorability or approval ratings of either Grimes or McConnell.
Still, McConnell’s campaign scoffed at the possibility of the issue becoming the centerpiece of the high-profile Kentucky race.
“You have to work pretty hard to find an issue that isn’t overwhelmingly on our side. This is literally the only issue [Grimes has] spoken about in months,” said McConnell campaign spokeswoman Allison Moore.
But it isn’t just in Kentucky — Democrats see an issue several times as popular as Congress’s abysmal approval ratings. A November Gallup poll found 76 percent support nationally for a wage of $9 an hour — a 5-point bump since March. A December Washington Post poll found 66 percent of respondents supported boosting the wage.
That sort of national buy-in has Democrats convinced that talking about inequality and reasonable pay will help shift the the midterm election focus from Obamacare to the economy. It’s a tactic not lost on Republicans, who believe outrage over the health care law will vastly outweigh any voter intensity on raising wages for the country’s poorest.
“Well, when you believe that the federal government is the solution to everything, from health care to jobs, wealth creation to success, you are forced to talk about things like minimum wage instead of maximizing the potential for the middle class and working families,” said Brad Dayspring, a spokesman for Senate Republicans’ campaign arm. “Democrats are going to spend 2014 focusing on anything but Obamacare and the economy.”
To the GOP, a conversation about tackling inequality is impossible without talking about Obamacare.
“Democrats are great at taking lousy policy and making good rhetoric out of it,” Cassidy said. “We’re going to look at the rollout of Obamacare and people paying $10,000 more a year in premiums.”