By Darlene Superville
WASHINGTON -- Striving to show momentum on a top legislative priority, President Barack Obama is appearing this week with Northeastern governors who back his push to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and will pledge to lift the earnings of the lowest-paid workers in their states to at least the same level.
Obama planned an appearance Wednesday at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain with Democratic Govs. Dannel Malloy of Connecticut, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Peter Shumlin of Vermont, as well as Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, an independent.
A higher minimum wage and an overhaul of immigration laws are Obama priorities, but it remains doubtful whether lawmakers will send him either piece of legislation this year, particularly when the entire House and one-third of the Senate are up for re-election.
A Senate-passed immigration bill is stalled in the House, while Republicans oppose raising the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour, arguing that jobs will be eliminated, unemployment will rise, and the economy will suffer if the government forces businesses to cut bigger paychecks for their workers.
The White House believes momentum for a higher minimum wage is building, however, and wants to keep the pressure on Congress, in part to help draw distinctions between the political parties for November's voters.
"It is time to give America a raise or elect more Democrats who will do it," Obama told Democrats at the party's winter meeting Friday in Washington.
Officials note that California, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island have raised the minimum wage since early 2013, when Obama first called on Congress to increase it. Obama recently used his executive power to enact a $10.10 minimum wage for the few hundred thousand people who work on federal contracts. The Gap, (GPS) the clothing chain, recently announced plans to raise voluntarily the minimum hourly wage for its U.S. employees to $10 next year, a move Obama applauded.
The Northeastern governors are joining Obama's campaign, which is part of the president's 2014 strategy to act on his own to help the middle class when he thinks Congress isn't doing what it should.
Obama says a higher wage will help lift hardworking people out of poverty, giving them more money to spend and businesses more customers and higher profits.
"It is a virtuous cycle that we can create," he said Friday.
In Connecticut, the minimum wage is scheduled to increase to $9 an hour, from $8.70, effective Jan. 1, 2015, under legislation Malloy signed last June. After Obama called for a $10.10 minimum wage in his State of the Union address, Malloy called on state lawmakers to raise Connecticut's minimum wage to $10.10 by 2017.
Malloy, who has become an outspoken advocate for raising the minimum wage, said widening income inequality is hurting middle-class families and the economy.
"Part of tackling that critically important challenge is making sure that we recognize that a decent wage is good for workers and for business," he said Saturday.
Rhode Island's minimum wage increased by 25 cents to $8 on Jan. 1, 2014. Pending legislation would boost it even higher.
States can set their minimum wage above the federal minimum but not below it.
In Massachusetts, Patrick recently called for an increase in the state's $8-per-hour minimum wage. The state Senate recently passed a bill to raise it to $11 per hour by 2016; the House has indicated it will take up the measure by mid-April. Separately, advocates are pushing a ballot question for a $10.50 per hour wage.
"Raising the federal minimum wage will bring financial relief to millions of workers and their families, many of whom do jobs we could not live without," Patrick said Saturday.
In Vermont, the minimum is $8.73 an hour.
"Given the lack of progress shown by this Congress on this critical economic issue, I encourage governors across the country to take the lead and work to raise the minimum wage in their own states, as many of us are doing here in New England," Shumlin said Saturday. "We cannot stand idly by while hardworking Americans continue to struggle."
The Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate recently again delayed debate on a bill by retiring Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, to gradually increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 by 2016 and adjust it annually after that to reflect inflation. Debate on the measure is not expected until late March at the earliest, after lawmakers return from a break.
Retiring Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., introduced a similar measure in the Republican-controlled House that has gone nowhere.