The battle will kick off a 2014 drive by President Barack Obama
and fellow Democrats to stem a growing gap between rich and poor.
The Democrat-led Senate plans to escalate the fight in coming weeks
by bringing up for a vote a bill to increase the federal minimum
wage, which has stood at $7.25 an hour since July 2009. Democrats
want the minimum wage to rise over three years to $10.10 and then be
indexed to inflation in the future.
"We are trying to catch up with what the American people have known
for years — that they are working more for less," Democratic Senator
Jack Reed of Rhode Island said in an interview.
Reed is a leading advocate of a minimum wage increase and, along
with Republican Senator Dean Heller of Nevada, is sponsoring a bill
to restore jobless benefits for 1.3 million Americans and prevent
thousands more from soon losing such aid.
The Reed-Heller measure would extend for three months the Emergency
Unemployment Compensation program, which ended on December 28 when
its funding expired.
Signed into law in 2008 by Republican President George W. Bush, the
program provided the jobless an average of $300 per week for an
additional 28 weeks once state benefits ended.
Supporters argue that besides helping the unemployed, it boosts the
economy as recipients quickly spend their benefit checks on
essential goods, helping local retailers.
"Providing a safety net for those in need is one of the most
important functions of the federal government," the conservative
Heller said in a statement.
It is unclear if legislation to renew the 2008 emergency program or
increase the minimum wage will muster the needed 60 votes in the
100-member Senate to clear procedural hurdles erected by
But if they do, both can expect a steep climb in the Republican-led
House of Representatives, which rejected most of Obama's largely
liberal agenda the past three years.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, on Sunday
appealed to Republicans to allow the jobless benefit extension to
"There are 55 of us (Democrats) and 45 of them (Republicans). It
would seem to me that five Republicans in the Senate" could join
Democrats to provide the necessary 60 votes, Reid said in an
interview on CBS's "Face the Nation."
Obama also made an urgent pitch for Congress to act. On Saturday, in
his weekly address, the president said Republicans should "make it
their New Year's resolution to do the right thing and restore this
vital economic security for their constituents right now."
One conservative Senate Republican, Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky,
told ABC's "This Week" that he was not opposed to renewing the
benefit. He added: "I'm opposed to having it without paying for it."
With an extension of benefits costing $6 billion for three months,
Democrats fear that paying for the program would mean cuts to other
domestic programs that already have been under the budget knife.
Paul, like House Speaker John Boehner, the top U.S. Republican, also
said that any extension should be coupled with new moves to create
As Obama nears the sixth year of his presidency, he has said he
wants to step up efforts to help the needy. But his appeals drew
fire from Republicans, who see them as attempts to increase taxes,
particularly on the rich.
Republicans argue that the best way to spread the wealth is to
create more of it by easing federal regulations and taxes.
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The new year raises a new question: Will Congress be more productive
and popular in 2014 than in 2013 when it did not do much of anything
and had an approval rating below 10 percent.
Despite a bipartisan budget deal at the end of last year, Congress
is likely to remain a tough place to find common ground.
That is largely because lawmakers will be busy jockeying for
position in advance of the November elections, when a third of the
100-member Senate and the entire 435-member House will be up for
"I don't see a lot coming from Congress," said Greg Valliere of The
Potomac Research Group, a private firm that tracks Washington for
"But I also don't see Congress creating any more debilitating
crises, like another government shutdown," Valliere said.
"Republicans want to keep the focus on bashing Obamacare," the
president's troubled healthcare program, Valliere said. "That's what
they figure will do them the most good" in elections.
Republicans have been reluctant to extend long-term jobless
benefits, arguing that the U.S. economy, with the jobless rate now
at a five-year low of 7 percent, is on the mend and that such
emergency federal assistance is no longer necessary.
Meanwhile, polls show most Americans support an increase in the
Republicans oppose an increase, contending it would do more harm
than good by eliminating jobs and hurting businesses, particularly
"A minimum wage increase is good politics but bad economics," said
Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Terry O'Neill, president of the National Organization for Women, a
liberal advocacy group, has made winning a minimum wage increase a
O'Neill cited federal statistics showing that from 2009 to 2012, the
average income for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans soared 30
percent. During the same period, the average income for the other 99
percent of Americans rose 0.4 percent.
"This must change," said O'Neill, whose organization is targeting
for defeat in the November election any lawmaker who opposes an
increase in the minimum wage.
(Additional reporting by Richard Cowan, Steve Holland and Bill
Trott; editing by Steve Orlofsky)
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