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Republicans eye minimum-wage increases, but with strings attached

The good news: instead of a debate over whether to increase the minimum wage, the argument taking shape is over how and how much to increase it.
Image: Tom Cotton
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks to reporters as he arrives for a meeting with fellow Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence and President Donald Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who are at the Capitol to discuss the nation's criminal justice sentencing laws, in Washington on Nov. 27, 2018.J. Scott Applewhite / AP file

Democratic leaders, in both the Biden White House and on Capitol Hill, have rallied behind a popular plan: raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, with increases that would be phased in gradually between now and 2025. At least for now, the proposal, which would be the first time Congress has approved an increase since 2007, is included in the party's COVID relief package, which continues to advance.

Republicans, not surprisingly, are not on board with the relief proposal or the minimum-wage hike, though some GOP officials seem to realize that the idea enjoys broad public support. And with that in mind, some have begun floating alternatives. USA Today reported yesterday, for example:

Republican Sens. Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton are proposing to raise the federal minimum wage to $10, but only if businesses are required to use the internet-based E-Verify system designed to prevent employers from hiring undocumented workers.

This isn't likely to go anywhere. For one thing, a phased-in increase to $10 per hour is clearly short of Democratic goals. In fact, it's a little odd Tom Cotton would set his sights on a $10 minimum given that in his home state of Arkansas, the minimum wage is already $11 per hour.

What's more, while Democrats have voiced broad skepticism about the use of E-verify, they're open to the possibility of expanding its use, but only as part of a comprehensive immigration reform package.

But it appears the Romney-Cotton proposal won't be the only GOP alternative.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is jumping on the minimum wage bandwagon and will introduce an alternative to Democrats' proposal on Wednesday that would use federal dollars to increase low-earning workers' income, Axios has learned.

According to the Axios report, Hawley's plan is complex, featuring refundable tax credits paid out in quarterly installments. The article described the Missouri Republican's blueprint as "an incredibly complicated bill." (The plan, by some measures, might also increase taxes on low-income Americans.)

As a rule, when one party supports a simple and popular plan, based on an existing model that already works, and the other party offers an "incredibly complicated" alternative, the latter is far less likely to prevail.

Indeed, on the surface, the politics of this aren't likely to do Republicans any favors: Democrats want to raise the minimum wage, while some in the GOP are ready to do the same, only with less money and more strings attached. It's hardly a recipe for success.

But just below the surface, the fight is far more encouraging: instead of a debate over whether to increase the minimum wage, the argument taking shape is over how and how much to increase the minimum wage.

Whether this will produce results remains to be seen, but for proponents of a wage hike, it's a far more welcome debate than the alternative. In fact, it's rooted in the fact that a growing number of officials in both parties agree that the status quo is simply untenable and Americans are overdue for a raise.

Postscript: For those following the debate closely, don't forget that we're likely to hear from the Senate parliamentarian today on whether Democrats can include a wage hike in their COVID relief package. We fleshed out some of the details on this yesterday.