President Barack Obama made a surprising announcement Friday – he'd throw his weight behind increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10.
This is more than a dollar higher than what he proposed in January during his own State of the Union address. And now, with the power of the bully pulpit behind them, Senate Democrats are laying the groundwork to stage their push to increase the minimum wage just in time for 2014.
In the Senate, Democrats are beginning to coalesce around Sen. Tom Harkin's, D-Iowa, plan that would increase the minimum wage to $10.10 and increase the minimum wage for tipped workers to 70 percent of the minimum wage. His bill would also tie the minimum wage to inflation so the gridlocked Congress would not have to debate the wage increase every few years. So far, 31 Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., have come out in support of his legislation. Thursday, during their caucus lunch, Democratic senators began mounting a plan to move forward ahead of 2014.
The last time the minimum wage increased was 2009, and advocates say the minimum wage has quickly been outpaced by inflation.
Advocates for the minimum wage argue that the increase would bolster families' earning power and allow them to stimulate the economy with an increase in disposable income.
Those who oppose the minimum wage, on the other hand, say a wage increase is counterproductive. They argue that increasing the wages of workers leads employers to cut costs elsewhere. Sometimes that means cutting workers' hours or laying off the very workers the wage hike was intended to help.
The move to make minimum wage a central piece of the 2014 election has always been part of the game plan for Democrats who believe its a good way to mobilize low-income voters and paint Republicans as too extreme, insensitive and anti-poor.
During a February interview with the Washington Post, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., said the minimum wage could be a major wedge issue in the suburban congressional districts where Democrats hope to take seats from Republicans in 2014.
"Both the minimum wage and reducing gun violence are priority issues in the districts we need to win," Israel said then. "Both are a reminder to suburban independent voters that House Republicans are extreme, and out of touch. On both, House Republicans have rejected solutions and have embraced obstructionism, turning their backs on hardworking American families."
And there is another reason minimum wage may boost Democrats' chances in the midterms.
Across the country, in 2014 battleground states like Alaska and Missouri, minimum wage may make the difference for Democrats on the chopping block. In a few spots where Democratic senators face tough re-elections, activists are fighting to put minimum wage increases on the ballot, which could mobilize low-wage workers to get out and vote, a constituency that has favored Democrats in past elections.
"There are people who would sit out an election because they didn't see anything in there interest who would show up if a minimum wage increase was on the ballot," says Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The minimum wage issue is also a way for Democrats to grab independent voters.
While a March Gallup poll found 71 percent of voters overall said they would support increasing the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour, 68 percent of the much-sought-after independent voters support the wage hike. While raising the minimum wage could be a powerful electoral issue for Democrats, some say that is exactly why it won't happen this year.
Experts predict Democrats will move slowly or throw a poison pill into the bill to ensure its something Republicans won't support.
"This is an issue Democrats don't want to resolve right now," says Michael Saltsman, the research director for the Employment Policies Institute, a group that researches the pitfalls of raising the minimum wage. "I think before the election, I would expect to see more huffing and puffing, but it is too potent an electoral issue for Democrats to leave it on the table."