WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Mark Pryor is doing a delicate dance over congressional Democrats' upcoming push to boost the federal minimum wage. The Democrat from Republican-leaning Arkansas says he'll vote against the bill, but on the key roll call may oppose GOP efforts to filibuster it to death.
Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, another red state where President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular, has no such qualms. He not only backs the legislation to gradually raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour by 2016 but is co-sponsoring it.
The two Marks, both seeking re-election this fall, exemplify how local politics is complicating Democrats' push on what most of them consider a can't-miss campaign-year issue. Tentative plans to debate the bill have slipped several times since late last year, and Democratic leaders delayed Senate debate on the proposal yet again Tuesday, saying it would come up after lawmakers return from a recess in late March.
Top Democrats blame GOP obstruction on nominations for hindering the Senate from addressing minimum wage, one of Obama's top priorities. But one Senate aide and a union lobbyist said Democrats prefer to refocus in coming days on extending benefits for the long-term unemployed, which they have tried passing repeatedly this year.
Though solid Republican opposition is the chief stumbling block to a minimum wage boost, Senate Democrats' long-shot prospects of prevailing hinge on getting virtually every Democratic vote. Even if they're defeated, many Democrats see minimum wage as a political winner because it lets them focus on income equality, motivate their most loyal voters and cast Republican opponents as uncaring.
Sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and backed by Obama, the minimum wage increase likely would get enough support from the Senate's 53 Democrats and two independents to win final approval. But first it would need 60 votes to overcome GOP procedural delays aimed at killing it, including support from at least five Republicans — a tough election-year lift.
Leaders of the GOP-run House seem unlikely to even stage votes on the measure, wounding its prospects further. Democrats said they will use a petition of lawmakers to try pressuring Republicans to allow a House vote, but the strategy seems unlikely to succeed.
An Associated Press-GfK poll last month found supporters of a minimum wage increase outnumbering opponents 55 percent to 21 percent, with 23 percent neutral. Yet Pryor, expecting a tough re-election challenge from GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, is treading gingerly.
Pryor favors a proposed Arkansas ballot initiative to gradually raise the state's $6.25 an hour minimum wage — one of the nation's lowest — to $8.50. He says the Senate bill's $10.10 is "too fast" for Arkansas and will be defeated anyway, while his state's ballot initiative "is going to pass, and that's the difference."
Labor has little clout in Arkansas, where unions represent 3 percent of workers, one of the country's lowest rates. The state's weak economy produced an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent in December, higher than most. Those factors leave unions reluctant to push Pryor aggressively to back the Senate bill.
"We're a state of low income, and our business is not the best in the world," said Alan Hughes, president of the Arkansas AFL-CIO. "I think he understands the need for a compromise." Said Randy Zook, president of the state's Chamber of Commerce, "I think he recognizes we have a terrible unemployment problem now, and this will aggravate it."
Just 35 percent in Arkansas approve of Obama's performance as president, according to Gallup polling last year, one of his worst ratings anywhere. That means opposing the bill could help Pryor by letting him separate himself from Obama and national Democrats.
"It's more about divorcing himself from President Obama than it's even about wages," said Janine Parry, political science professor at the University of Arkansas. The senator says such distancing is "not the intention."
Things are different in Alaska, making Begich happy to back the Senate bill. The state had a more moderate December jobless rate of 6.4 percent and has a potent labor movement, with 22 percent union membership, one of the nation's highest rates.
Alaska has a state minimum wage of $7.75, which exceeds the federal level and is expected to rise further with a ballot initiative this summer increasing the state minimum to $9.75 in 2016. And though Obama is as unpopular in Alaska as in Arkansas, Alaska has many independent voters and an entrenched working-class ethos.
"I listened to a whole lot of diatribes against Obama," said Ed Flanagan, a former state labor commissioner who said he gathered signatures for the minimum wage ballot initiative in conservative areas. "But they signed the petition."
Begich seems unconcerned about backing Obama on the minimum wage. "I've got plenty to separate myself from the president" on higher-profile issues, Begich said, citing differences over federal curbs on energy development and his opposition to expanding gun buyers' background checks.
Other senators facing voters this year who must also gauge home-state sentiment include Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu, who must be careful to not tie herself too closely to Obama in conservative Louisiana. She said she supports an increase, but $10.10 would be "a pretty significant jump" for Louisiana, which has no minimum of its own.
Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said she worries about the size of the $10.10 proposal. She said she was working with other Republicans on an alternative with incentives to keep small businesses from cutting jobs.
The $10.10 proposal got mixed reviews last week from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. It said the increase could cost the economy 500,000 jobs in 2016, while lifting 900,000 people over the poverty line.
That hasn't deterred Democrats from seeking Senate votes. "Bring it up. And when you don't get 60 votes, bring it up again," said Brad Woodhouse, president of the liberal Americans United for Change. "It's one of those things where the politics are so good for Democrats."
"Democrats are trying to refocus the national conversation around anything but the two major issues that have plagued them for the last several years" — Obama's 2010 health care overhaul and the economy, said Brad Dayspring, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the party's Senate campaign arm.