U.S. House Dems, with serious Pa. backing, prep a vote on $15 an hour minimum wage bill

An SEIU activist rallies for a $15/hr. minimum wage, which was one of the policies that F&M researchers polled in their most recent public opinion survey. (Stephen Melkisethian/Flickr Commons)

As Democratic leaders in the U.S. House work to reach the magic threshold of 218 votes needed to pass a bill hiking the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, they won’t have to worry about winning over their colleagues in Pennsylvania’s U.S. House delegation.

All nine Keystone State Democrats support raising the federal minimum, which now stands at $7.25 an hour. House Democrats are eyeing a July vote on the bill, which faces steep hurdles in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate.

“Democrats ran on raising wages for American workers, and this remains a top priority for us,” Mariel Saez, a spokeswoman for the House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said.

The legislation, sponsored by House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., would increase the wage to $15 an hour by 2024. Congress approved the current federal minimum in 2007, and it took effect in 2009.

If approved, the federal minimum could provide raises to thousands of low-wage Pennsylvania workers.

The legislation cleared Scott’s committee in March and is expected to easily pass the full House. Democrats believe they have public opinion on their side. Polling earlier this year suggested that most registered voters would support raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.

U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District, who sits on Scott’s committee, voted in March to send the bill to the House floor. In a statement issued by her office on Monday, the Allentown Democrat said a “wage hike is long overdue.”

“It has officially been the longest period of time without an increase to the federal minimum wage — an issue that was once inherently bipartisan and uncontroversial,” Wild said. “This effort has broad support — from voters of every political party to some of America’s largest corporations who once opposed raising the minimum wage — because a responsible, gradual increase is good for workers, it’s good for businesses, and it’s good for our economy.”

If approved finally, the bill would raise wages for more than 98,000 workers in Wild’s Lehigh Valley-based district, her office said in a statement.

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon, D-5th District, said “countless families” in her Delaware County-based district, “and across the country rely on minimum wage jobs as a primary source of income. No one who works a minimum wage job should live in poverty.”

U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean  D-4th District, added that “it’s simple: Our minimum wage should be livable wage,” and “right now too members of our communities cannot pay their bills, no matter how hard they work, or how many jobs they hold.”

The debate on Capitol Hill comes as state lawmakers in Pennsylvania consider hiking the state’s own minimum wage, now at the federal level of $7.25, for the first time in a decade.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, is pressing to raise the wage to $12 an hour by July and then to $15 an hour by 2025. The state’s business community and its allies in the Republican-controlled state House have aligned against the bill. Leaders in the majority-Republican Senate have said they’re open to some increase. Wolf told the Capital-Star last week that he’s willing to cut a deal.

Supporters of the wage hike have positioned the issue as one of economic justice. Wolf has additionally argued that the infusion of tax-dollars from higher wage earners will help the state’s economy. There’s data to support both conclusions.

For instance, a 2018 study by the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that a working family in Pennsylvania needed to earn $19.53 an hour to afford the fair-market rent for a two-bedroom apartment without paying more than 30 percent of their income toward housing costs.

A May 1 report by Pennsylvania’s budget watchdog, the Independent Fiscal Office, projected income gains across the state economy. But it also acknowledged arguments made by opponents that a higher wage could have a cooling effect on hiring.

Source: Pennsylvania Independent Fiscal Office

At the federal level, the U.S. House bill is expected to be dead-on-arrival in the U.S. Senate, where 2020 Democratic presidential contender, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is sponsoring a companion bill.

“Just a few short years ago, we were told that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour was ‘radical.’ But a grassroots movement of millions of workers throughout this country refused to take ‘no’ for an answer,” Sanders said in a statement. “It is not a radical idea to say a job should lift you out of poverty, not keep you in it. The current $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage is a starvation wage. It must be increased to a living wage of $15 an hour.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been outspoken in his opposition.

In 2014, the Senate killed an effort to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. When he was running for re-election in 2014, McConnell told a conference of rich conservatives he wouldn’t allow votes on the minimum wage and several other Democratic priorities if he became majority leader, the Louisville Courier-Journal reported.

“We’re not going to be debating all of these gosh darn proposals,” he said.

Predictably, Pennsylvania’s two United States senators, Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey, don’t see eye-to-eye on the bill.

In a statement, Casey, who supports the bill, said he believes “Workers deserve to be paid a wage that enables them to provide for themselves and their family.

“Moving to a $15 minimum wage would provide a substantial boost to millions of workers’ earnings and restore the value of the minimum wage. This should not be a partisan issue, and past minimum wage increases have received bipartisan support,” he said.

In a statement, Toomey’s office said a $12 an hour wage would “kill 34,000 jobs” in Pennsylvania — a estimate from the IFO — and that it should be left up to states to make individual calls on whether to raise the wage. Toomey “does not believe the federal government should impose policies which destroy existing jobs and prevent the creation of new jobs.”

Democrats will likely use the vote to score political points against President Donald Trump, who said on the presidential campaign trail that he would support raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour, after he previously said that wages are “too high.”

Many Republicans, including Trump’s economic adviser Larry Kudlow, are opposed to increasing the federal minimum wage. Kudlow has called the minimum wage law a “terrible idea” that hurts small businesses.

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.

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