Here’s some welcome news. At his meeting with Democratic Senators last night, President Obama indicated that he is giving serious consideration to executive action designed to raise the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors, according to one Senator who was present.

Proponents want to see this executive action happen on the merits — they believe it could impact as many as two million employees of federal contractors, and would help the economy. But they also believe such action could give a boost of momentum to the push for a minimum wage hike for all American workers, which obviously would require Congressional approval, but is currently facing Republican opposition.

Senator Bernie Sanders told me in an interview that the president took the idea very seriously when asked about it last night.

“I am very pleased that the president and members of his administration indicated they’re giving very serious consideration to this proposal,” Sanders said. “The president is weighing the pros and cons in terms of the impact on the overall debate.”

Asked what “cons” the president had identified, Sanders declined to say, noting that this had been a private meeting. But it seems fair to speculate that Obama, like some others, could be worried that raising the minimum wage for employees of federal contractors could be counter-productive, sapping momentum in the broader debate over whether to raise the minimum wage for all workers, by allowing opponents to argue that some have already been helped.

Sanders, for his part, doesn’t believe that. “My own belief is that if they go forward, it will have a very significant positive impact on the debate to raise the minimum wage for all American workers to at least $10.10,” Sanders said.

The idea has long been a focus for progressives. As George Zornick recently explained:

More than half a million employees of federal contractors make less than $12 an hour, according to a study by the progressive think tank Demos.  When the National Employment Law Project interviewed more than 500 federal contract workers who work in service-industry type jobs, sew military uniforms and drive trucks, more than 70 percent made less than $10 an hour.
Progressives have been pushing the president for years to issue an executive order that would require federal agencies to give contracting preference to contractors that pay at least $10.10 an hour. This is something advocates argue the president can do without consulting Congress, and they point to similar executive orders by presidents Kennedy and Johnson, who raised federal labor standards in regards to equal opportunity and nondiscrimination.
Every good argument for raising the federal minimum wage exists here: The existing minimum wage is inadequate and exploitative, and the fact these workers are doing work for, and being paid by, U.S. taxpayers makes it all the more troublesome. The economic lots of federal contract workers would be improved, and more money would end up going into the economy.

Beyond all of this, the White House is increasingly aware that it is running out of time to enact Obama’s priorities and prod along the recovery, and Republican opposition to pretty much everything he has proposed along these lines isn’t showing any signs of waning. As a result, the administration appears more and more inclined to realize that executive action is central to moving his agenda forward on multiple fronts.

In August, Obama said: “whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I’ll use it.” The other day, Obama added: “I’ve got a pen and I’ve got a phone.”

This is one way Obama can help low income workers, and push the recovery along, without the help of a Congress that only appears willing to do harm to the economy. It could galvanize Democrats behind the broader push for a minimum wage hike, which is already central to the Democratic argument in the midterm elections, the stakes of which are also very high for the remainder of Obama’s second term.

Sure, if the president were to do this, Republicans would scream about Obama tyranny. But the minimum wage hike is popular, and Congressional Republicans aren’t. And as some supporters of this move have already pointed out, Republicans already scream about Obama tyranny on a daily basis in any case.


UPDATE: For more on what such an executive order might look like, see Jared Bernstein, and also this New York Times editorial.