For senators seeking re-election, home-state politics colors decisions on minimum wage fight

The Associated Press

FILE - In this Nov. 11, 2013, file photo, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., attends a Veterans Day observance in Little Rock, Ark. Pryor says he will vote against the bill to raise the federal minimum wage, which would gradually boost the minimum wage from $7.25 hourly to $10.10 by 2016. But he says he may oppose GOP efforts to derail it before debate even begins. Arkansas has high unemployment and weak labor unions. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston, File)

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By ALAN FRAM, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Mark Pryor is doing a delicate dance over congressional Democrats' upcoming push to boost the federal minimum wage. The Democrat from Republican-leaning Arkansas says he'll vote against the bill, but on the key roll call may oppose GOP efforts to filibuster it to death.

Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, another red state where President Barack Obama is deeply unpopular, has no such qualms. He not only backs the legislation to gradually raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour by 2016 but is co-sponsoring it.

The two Marks, both seeking re-election this fall, exemplify how local politics is complicating Democrats' push on what most of them consider a can't-miss campaign-year issue.

Tentative plans to debate the bill have slipped several times since late last year, and Democratic leaders delayed Senate debate on the proposal yet again Tuesday, saying it would come up after lawmakers return from a recess in late March.

Top Democrats blame GOP obstruction on nominations for hindering the Senate from addressing minimum wage, one of Obama's top priorities. But one Senate aide and a union lobbyist said Democrats prefer to refocus in coming days on extending benefits for the long-term unemployed, which they have tried passing repeatedly this year.

Though solid Republican opposition is the chief stumbling block to a minimum wage boost, Senate Democrats' long-shot prospects of prevailing hinge on getting virtually every Democratic vote. Even if they're defeated, many Democrats see minimum wage as a political winner because it lets them focus on income equality, motivate their most loyal voters and cast Republican opponents as uncaring.

Sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and backed by Obama, the minimum wage increase likely would get enough support from the Senate's 53 Democrats and two independents to win final approval.

But first it would need 60 votes to overcome GOP procedural delays aimed at killing it, including support from at least five Republicans — a tough election-year lift.

Leaders of the GOP-run House seem unlikely to even stage votes on the measure, wounding its prospects further.

An Associated Press-GfK poll last month found supporters of a minimum wage increase outnumbering opponents 55 percent to 21 percent, with 23 percent neutral. Yet Pryor, expecting a tough re-election challenge from GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, is treading gingerly.

Pryor favors a proposed Arkansas ballot initiative to gradually raise the state's $6.25 an hour minimum wage — one of the nation's lowest — to $8.50. He says the Senate bill's $10.10 is "too fast" for Arkansas and will be defeated anyway, while his state's ballot initiative "is going to pass, and that's the difference."

Labor has little clout in Arkansas, where unions represent 3 percent of workers, one of the country's lowest rates. The state's weak economy produced an unemployment rate of 7.4 percent in December, higher than most. Those factors leave unions reluctant to push Pryor aggressively to back the Senate bill.

"We're a state of low income, and our business is not the best in the world," said Alan Hughes, president of the Arkansas AFL-CIO. "I think he understands the need for a compromise."

Said Randy Zook, president of the state's Chamber of Commerce, "I think he recognizes we have a terrible unemployment problem now, and this will aggravate it."

Just 35 percent in Arkansas approve of Obama's performance as president, according to Gallup polling last year, one of his worst ratings anywhere. That means opposing the bill could help Pryor by letting him separate himself from Obama and national Democrats.

"It's more about divorcing himself from President Obama than it's even about wages," said Janine Parry, political science professor at the University of Arkansas.

The senator says such distancing is "not the intention."