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Fully intending to condemn the GOP for its insensitivity to the plight of the working poor, confused Democrats instead found themselves strongly defending a Republican-led effort in the Senate this week to raise the federal minimum wage for lawmakers by $16.35, to $100 an hour for a basic Senator with no leadership position.
“I can’t quite explain how we got here, but I can see how this could be seen as an example of the two parties, even in these polarized times, finding common ground on matters of economic fairness and upward mobility,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill.
The question is not just one of money, he said, but of morality. Democrats are hoping this latest turn of events might return them to the themes that were so successful for their party and President Obama in 2012 when they convinced swing voters that Democrats were mindful of the best interests of all Americans, not just those who are powerful and wealthy.
“We haven’t forgotten about the low-wage workers,” Sen. Patty Murray of Washington said, recalling her disappointment at last month’s Republican-led filibuster of a Senate proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10. “But I don’t think those who supported us in that effort would want us just to continue the fight to no purpose. We have been trying to find a starting point for a discussion on wage equality for all Americans and raising the Senate minimum wage by $16.35 an hour is as good a place as any to begin this long, hard fight toward economic fairness and upward mobility for all.”
Speaking from the White House shortly after the Senate approved the measure 101-0, Obama praised that legislative body for its due diligence, and vice president Joseph Biden for casting, in his role as the Senate president, the symbolic 101st vote.
Biden, who celebrated the historic session — and his unusual vote — with a motorcycle ride around the Senate chamber, hailed the moment as “one small step for the Senate and vice president and one giant leap for economic justice in America.”
Both Biden and Obama called on voters to punish at the polls in November any congressman or congresswoman who does not vote for a similar pay increase on the House side, calling it a matter of economic fairness.
“If there’s any good news here, it’s that Republicans in Congress don’t get the last word on this issue and Democrats in Congress don’t get the last word on this,” Obama said. “We’re leaving the talking to evenhandedness, integrity, opportunity, and that $16.35 an hour raise.”
If voters thought the defeat of the minimum wage increase last month had left Democratic lawmakers discouraged, there was no sign of it after this week’s vote in the Senate.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, said the unanimous vote gave senators an opportunity to remind voters why they are in control of the Senate. Republicans felt just as strongly, saying that Wednesday’s vote was the latest sign that the chamber is finally doing some good for the country.
Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican whip from Texas, argued from the Senate floor that raising the minimum wage for Senators would add hundreds of thousands of jobs and repair the fragile economy of the Senate cafeterias, which are going through such a slow recovery that they grew at only 0.1 percent from January through March, new figures released Wednesday showed.
“Let’s talk about the 800-pound gorilla here in the Senate chamber,” Cornyn said between bites of his oven-roasted stuffed quail
“This is all about America. It’s not just about the Senate. This is all about trying to make sure the little guy on this side of Congress gets his fair share. Justice always begins at home.”
After wrapping Cornyn in a heartfelt bear hug, and inquiring about where to get a plate of quail, Biden urged senators to direct him to any representatives considering voting against the federal minimum wage for the lawmakers in the House.
“I’ll take them for a quick spin around the Senate. If they are on the fence about it, that ought to convince them of the merits and meritocratic nature of this measure,” Biden said, using his teeth to tug a leather glove into place on his left hand.
Reid, the majority leader, was philosophical about this week’s vote, noting that the effort to improve the lot of low-wage workers was still high on the Democratic Party’s agenda. He and his fellow Democrats, he said, would continue to make the case that it is only right that people who are working 40 hours a week get a fair shot at providing for their families.
“But for now,” he said, “I guess the best we can do is lead by example.”
Philip Maddocks writes a weekly satirical column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Philip Maddocks: Democrats defend GOP proposal to raise Senate minimum wage