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Democrats plan rare legislative maneuver to force vote on minimum wage. Will it work?

House Democrats are poised to announce plans Wednesday to use a little-used and rarely successful procedural tactic to try and force a vote on raising the federal minimum wage.


Minority leader Nancy Pelosi. (Photo by Melina Mara/Washington Post)

The push comes as President Obama and congressional Democrats continue their campaign to raise the minimum wage to $10.10. A vote on the  proposed increase is expected to occur in the Senate in the coming weeks, but prospects are much less certain in the House, where Republican leaders have no interest in voting on a proposed increase.

That's why Democrats are turning to the procedural maneuver, known as a discharge petition. They might try again in a few weeks to introduce another discharge petition to force a vote on changes to the nation's immigration laws.

But what's a discharge petition? And do they ever work? Read on to learn more.

What is a discharge petition?

The discharge petition allows an absolute majority of the House of Representatives (218 lawmakers) to force a floor vote on a bill, even if leaders who control the House floor oppose the measure. Successful use of discharge petitions conceivably could help the minority party hijack the majority party's legislative agenda.

If a majority of House lawmakers pass the petition, the measure then can be considered on the second or fourth Monday of a month and eventually earn a vote.

The practice was first introduced in 1910 and tweaked in 1931. Since then, nearly 600 discharge petitions have been introduced, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

Do discharge petitions succeed?

Rarely. As The Post's Max Ehrenfreund recently noted, gun rights activists in 1986 forced a vote in the House on a bill that had passed the Senate. And in 2002, supporters forced a vote in the House on the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill.

Overall, seven discharge petitions have received 218 signatures over the last 30 years. In all seven cases, the majority party agreed to bring the measure to the House floor, according to the CRS.

Read the most recent CRS report on discharge petitions here:

So back to the Democrats -- what are they trying to do?

In order to succeed, Democrats would need to convince about two dozen Republicans to defy House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and his leadership team, who have said they don't plan to hold a vote on the proposal.


The House chamber. (AP)

How many Republicans might vote for it?

Here's how the numbers break down: House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) recently predicted that the "overwhelming majority" of his 200-member caucus will back the discharge petition. That means Democrats would need at least 18 and probably closer to 24 Republicans co-signers, in the event that at least a handful of moderate Democrats don't sign the petition.

While dozens of conservative Republicans regularly crow about voting against the wishes of GOP leadership and often threaten to vote against Boehner as speaker, joining with Democrats to force a vote on a bill opposed by Republican leaders would be seen as a step too far. It's even more difficult to envision that centrist Republicans who support raising the minimum wage would break away from their party since so many of them are close friends and allies of Boehner.

But House Democrats noted last week that 36 House Republicans currently in office joined with Democrats in 2007 to increase the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour. Most of those Republicans hail from moderate or swing districts where raising the minimum wage is popular, but several also hold committee chairmanships, and would be unlikely to go against the wishes of GOP leadership.

So is the House Democrats' discharge petition on the minimum wage going to succeed?

No, based on the answer above. And that's by design.

Democrats know that their attempt to force a vote isn't likely to work and while they'd genuinely like to raise the minimum wage, they know that Republican rejection of their proposal gives them ammunition for November's elections. They'll be able to argue two points: One, that Republicans are standing against the will of a majority of Americans and two, that Republicans are leading a "do-nothing" House and standing in the way of economic progress for millions.

"The House of Representatives is not done doing it's work," Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said when Democrats announced their plans to introduce the discharge petition a few days ago, adding later: "While some people consider this the do-nothing Congress, we're ready to get to work."

Most recently during the partial government shutdown, Democrats tried using a discharge petition to force a vote on restarting government operations. That effort also failed, allowing Democrats to say that Republicans were more interested in keeping the government closed than restarting operations. Those arguments contributed to public polling that shows most Americans blamed Republicans for the shutdown.

So Democrats likely won't succeed in getting enough signatures to force a vote on the minimum wage -- but they hope to score some political points while trying.

Ed O’Keefe is covering the 2016 presidential campaign, with a focus on Jeb Bush and other Republican candidates. He's covered presidential and congressional politics since 2008. Off the trail, he's covered Capitol Hill, federal agencies and the federal workforce, and spent a brief time covering the war in Iraq.

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