Senate Democrats began building support Wednesday for parts of their new midterm-year legislative agenda as a GOP senator suggested that she might have a bipartisan plan to address a key element of the Democratic strategy.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) rallied a group of Democrats on the steps of the U.S. Capitol at midday to launch a push to pass a bill that would ensure pay equity between men and women and a proposal to raise the federal minimum wage increase to $10.10 per hour. A vote on the pay equity bill is expected to occur next week, while a vote on the minimum wage bill has been pushed back several times and has yet to be scheduled.
Both proposals are considered key pieces of legislation as Democrats seek to retool their messaging in hopes of holding on to the Senate during this year's elections.
"While Republicans are focused on the past, we Democrats are focused on the future, and that's the way it should be," Reid said. "We were elected to improve people's lives ... we've proposed an agenda that consists of common-sense proposals to help the middle class."
Reid's comments came as President Obama traveled to the University of Michigan to push for an increase in the minimum wage, the first of several campaign-style trips he's expected to make in the coming weeks to coincide with votes in the Senate.
While the president uses his bully pulpit to build national support for his party's proposals, Democratic senators are doubling down on the idea that they're seeking to give middle-class Americans a "fair shot." The strategy includes leveling sharp criticism at David and Charles Koch, two wealthy Republican benefactors who have poured millions into ad campaigns targeting vulnerable Democrats, and also criticizing the budget proposal advanced yesterday by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
Reid frequently referred to Ryan's budget proposal as the "Ryan-Koch budget." Later, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a Reid deputy, said the Ryan budget helps "show the difference between the two parties."
"We put out our 'Fair Shot Agenda' and they have their Ryan budget. We welcome that contrast, we relish that contrast and I think when the American people see the differences, it’s going to become a very significant issue in the fall elections," Schumer told reporters.
But Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has been critical to brokering other bipartisan compromises passed by the Senate in recent months, confirmed to reporters that she's working on a possible bipartisan compromise that would raise the federal minimum wage, but not at the levels being sought by Democrats.
Based on conversations she's had with several colleagues, Collins said that the Democratic proposal to raise the minimum hourly wage to $10.10 per hour "is not going to get through the Senate, much less the House." But she refused to specify a new proposed wage limit, saying only that the Democratic proposal is too high, "particularly given the still-fragile economy."
As part of her compromise, Collins said she would seek to raise the wage, include some small-business tax credits and an agreement to change the definition of a full-time work as set by the Affordable Care Act from 30 hours per week back up to 40 hours per week.
"To me, this comes down to whether or not we really want to get a bill that provides an increase in the minimum wage – which would help a lot of struggling families – through the Congress and without harming our economy and causing hundreds of thousands of jobs to be lost. Or, do some members simply want one vote and a political issue?" she said.
If talks proceed, Collins's participation would be welcomed by Democrats and Republicans alike. She was a key negotiator on the bipartisan proposal to extend unemployment insurance for out-of-work Americans that the Senate is scheduled to approve Thursday. And she announced Wednesday morning that she plans to vote with Democrats on the Intelligence Committee to declassify the executive summary of a long-awaited report on the CIA's controversial interrogation program.
Schumer told reporters that he had "complete faith" in Collins's sincerity in seeking a potential compromise. While not all 55 members of the Democratic caucus are likely to support the $10.10 wage plan, Schumer said most Democrats still believe "it's the right way to go and we're not giving up on that very quickly."
Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), another Reid deputy, said Democrats still planned to bring their proposal up for a vote "and do our best to get enough Republicans to pass it."
"If it doesn’t pass — at that stage, procedurally or otherwise — we need to be open for conversation," Durbin said. "But first, we want to make our stand for what we believe to be a fair minimum wage for all Americans."