Republicans may not have applauded when President Obama called for Congress to raise the minimum wage in his State of the Union address, but if history is any guide, it's a good bet they will eventually do just that.
Since the minimum wage was established in 1938, every president, Republican or Democrat, except for Ronald Reagan has signed an increase into law. And in almost every instance, the bill came to the president's desk with a big bipartisan vote from Congress. When Democrats crank up the pressure — and are willing to compromise with business interests — Republicans have routinely relented.
The most recent increase was in 2007, when nearly every Senate Republican and more than 60 percent of the House Republican Caucus voted in favor. And if you think the Republican Party was wildly more moderate back then, here are a few of the people that voted "Aye": Michele Bachmann, Todd Akin, Bobby Jindal, and David Vitter.
What was different than today was the person sitting in the Oval Office: A chastened Republican giving his fellow conservatives political cover. But two other past increases played out against a similar political backdrop as today. In 1996 and 1949, congressional conservatives faced a Democratic president they loathed, yet were unwilling to face the voters and say they blocked a wage hike.
In the presidential election year of 1996, Speaker Newt Gingrich quietly signaled to his House caucus that they should let the increase go through after procedural stalling prompted the AFL-CIO to pound Republicans with television ads. Feeling the heat, 40 percent of House Republicans eventually crossed the aisle.
Over in the Senate, Majority Leader Bob Dole had been fighting the increase. But he resigned his Senate seat in June to jumpstart his campaign for president. Soon after, new Majority Leader Trent Lott, facing a Democratic threat to propose minimum wage amendments to every bill that reached the floor, backed down and allowed the bill to come to a vote. More than half of the caucus broke ranks.
In 1949, President Harry Truman just had been elected to his first full term in the most famous comeback in political history, thanks to a fiercely populist campaign that also reclaimed control of Congress to the Democrats. Yet it was not a liberal Congress. An informal alliance of conservative Southern Democrats and Republicans remained in force, and would eventually squelch most of Truman's "Fair Deal" proposals. But the widely popular minimum wage was a rare exception.
Truman's proposed increase was particularly ambitious, almost doubling the base hourly rate from 40 cents to 75 cents (from $3.81 to $7.14 in today's dollars) and dramatically expanding the pool of workers covered by the law. As Truman historian Mark Byrnes recently recounted, conservatives did try to stop Truman, "but not by using today's obstructionist tactics. They actually proposed an alternative: Limiting the increase to 65 cents an hour, indexing the wage to inflation, and eliminating the expansion of workers covered." In the end, they struck a hard bargain. Truman got his wage increase, but as Byrnes notes, "in the short run [the compromise] actually reduced the number of workers covered by the law."
In fact, all of the minimum wage increases mentioned above came with sops to the business lobby that eased Republican opposition. The 1996 and 2007 bills came with small business tax cuts and failed to increase the minimum wage for waiters who receive tips. That minimum remains stuck at $2.13.
Is this history relevant today? Or is the current Tea Party hatred of President Obama too much to overcome?
Consider the following:
The popularity of the issue is as strong as ever: In a Quinnipiac poll from earlier this month, 71 percent support an increase, including 52 percent of Republicans.
As I wrote here back in October, Speaker John Boehner has proven vulnerable to Democratic pressure tactics when Democrats are on extremely firm political ground — providing disaster relief, keeping the government open, and raising taxes on the wealthy to avert a tax hike on the middle class.
Finally, the Democratic proposal that Obama endorsed this week is a highly ambitious one — akin to Truman's 1949 opening bid — which leaves much room for compromise.
The Harkin-Miller bill envisions a $10.10 hourly minimum wage, which would raise the floor to one of the highest levels in history after accounting for inflation. It would then index the minimum wage to inflation, meaning it would stay at that high level forever. And it jacks up the hourly minimum of tipped workers to about $7.
Poll numbers were not enough to break Boehner on an issue like gun control, because the gun lobby is politically potent and implacable. But history shows the business lobbies generally opposed to the minimum wage are far more willing to deal. And there is room to maneuver on the final rate, on indexing, and on tipped workers.
Where a final deal gets tricky is not how Democrats can scale back their opening bid, it's what sweeteners can be concocted for the business lobby to attract Republican support. The tax break model of the 1996 and 2007 bills will be much harder to pull off under the tight budget caps both parties accepted and wrote into law this month.
But where there's a will, there's a way. Democrats have an abundance of will, and Republicans will need a way out. As history shows, they always take it.
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