WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans on Wednesday killed an effort to raise the minimum wage, but Democrats who backed the measure said they would try again, both in Congress and through ballot measures in several states.
The federal minimum wage has been $5.15 an hour since 1997. On a procedural measure Wednesday, senators voted 52 to 46 in favor of raising the wage to $7.25 in three steps, but 60 votes were needed to move the legislation forward.
Still, Democrats intend to highlight the issue before the midterm elections. Many in the party are hoping to frame it as a "family values" issue that could draw Democratic-leaning voters to the polls, just as Republicans have tried to energize conservatives with proposals to ban gay marriage and flag burning.
Efforts to place minimum wage increases on the November ballot are under way or have succeeded in six states.
"Part of American values are economic fairness," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said Wednesday on the Senate floor, pointing to a map of states with ballot initiatives. "The demand for fairness is sweeping the country like a brush fire."
Democrats hope to raise the issue in the House as well, and were encouraged to see several Republican lawmakers lobbying House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday to allow a vote before the midterm elections.
In Senate debate Wednesday, Kennedy noted that Congress had raised its own pay over the last nine years by $31,600.
Afterward, Kennedy said supporters might try before November to insert the amendment into another spending bill, such as a proposed congressional pay raise or a proposal to reduce the estate tax, which is popular among Republicans.
Senate Republicans argued that raising the minimum wage would lead to job cuts and would hurt unskilled workers. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) referred to Kennedy's proposal as "a feel-good amendment whose intention ends up having the exact opposite result."
Sen. Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.) offered an alternative Wednesday that would have raised the federal wage floor by $1.10. But Kennedy said that plan also would cut overtime pay and cover 4.8 million fewer workers than his proposal. The measure failed, with 45 senators in favor and 53 opposed.
The federal minimum wage is the lowest it has been in more than 50 years relative to the cost of living, according to a study by the liberal Economic Policy Institute. The average full-time minimum wage worker earns $10,712 a year, about $900 more than the federal poverty level for one person and $2,500 less than the poverty level for a couple. When fully phased in, the Democrats' proposal would have added almost $4,400 a year to the gross earnings of a full-time minimum wage worker.
Voters and legislators have already raised the minimum wage above the federal level in 21 states, including California, where it is $6.75 an hour, and the District of Columbia.
"Minimum wage measures have really proven to be winners at the ballot box," said Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Washington-based Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, which is helping Democrats plan for the midterm elections.
A minimum wage hike will be on the November ballot in Nevada. In Arizona and Missouri, activists recently submitted signatures seeking to put a measure on the fall ballot. Volunteers are still gathering signatures in Colorado, Ohio and Montana, Wilfore said.
In Arkansas and Michigan, voters recently approved minimum wage increases. In North Carolina, the state House and Senate have approved a minimum wage increase but must reconcile differences before the law can take effect.
Republicans have placed gay marriage referendums on ballots in seven states, partly in an effort to bring conservatives to the polls. Some moderate Democrats are less certain that minimum wage can motivate voters. They say the party should concentrate on economic issues that directly affect middle-class voters, such as making higher education and healthcare affordable.
"While middle-class people might support it because they're good, compassionate people, it doesn't have an impact on their life," said Matt Bennett, spokesman for the Third Way, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that promotes a centrist Democratic agenda. "When you are trying to persuade undecided voters you need to do more than that."
But even the potential for minimum wage to affect the November elections could be enough to pressure Republicans to compromise. Two senators who face tough reelection campaigns, Mike DeWine of Ohio and Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, were among the eight Republicans who supported the minimum wage measure Wednesday.
In the House, Majority Leader Boehner had said Tuesday that he would oppose holding a vote by the full House on an appropriations bill that had been amended to include a minimum wage hike.
But Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said he spoke with Boehner several times in the last few days and was convinced a bill would be considered "well before the election."
"It's a no-brainer. It's just something that we should do, and I believe he buys that argument," LaHood said.
Boehner spokesman Kevin Madden said the House majority leader "never promised anything" about a vote and "remains convinced that a minimum wage hike will destroy jobs."
Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho), one of seven Republicans on the appropriations committee who voted in favor of raising the minimum wage, said he feared a backlash if Republicans didn't support a raise.
"It could harm us if we don't address it," Simpson said. "I think we are too hung up on philosophy and not looking enough at reality."