Senate Democrats Pause From Obamacare to Push Labor Bills

U.S. Senate Democrats are packing the calendar this month with bills appealing to the party’s base as they seek a distraction from Obamacare’s troubled start.

The strategy kicked off yesterday with a vote to advance legislation extending protections from employment discrimination to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender workers. Proposals to raise the federal minimum wage and to boost domestic manufacturing probably will follow.

The measures stand little chance in the Republican-led House. Devoting floor time to the bills is intended to give Democrats an opportunity to burnish their standing with organized labor, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP, women’s groups and others that support the party’s candidates.

All of the measures have strong support from the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, which has been a reliable top contributor to Democratic Senate campaigns.

Democrats want “to shift the conversation” from the Obamacare woes, said Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey.

“Certainly they don’t want the problems with the rollout being the story going into the midterm elections in 2014,” Zelizer said.

Labor’s ‘Influence’

The AFL-CIO plans to use its “influence to sway those members of Congress who will be instrumental in the bill’s passage,” Richard Trumka, president of the labor federation, said in a blog post on the group’s website about the anti-discrimination legislation.

Such measures also are useful to interest groups, as they provide a list of senators that have sided with them on major issues. Groups often use such information to target campaign donations and other forms of electoral support.

Labor political action committees have given 87 percent of their $12.1 million in contributions for the 2014 elections to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that tracks campaign giving. In the 2012 campaign cycle, 90 percent of their $60.5 million in donations went to Democrats, according to the center.

Democrats are defending 21 Senate seats in 2014, compared with 14 for Republicans, who need at least a six-seat net pickup to gain the chamber’s majority for the first time in eight years.

Seven of the seats Democrats are defending are in states Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney carried in 2012, while Maine is the only state won by President Barack Obama last year where Republicans are defending a seat.

Base Messages

“What Democrats seem to be trying to do is play key messages to their base even though the legislation is likely to not go anywhere,” said Republican strategist Ron Bonjean, an aide to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. “They’re trying to get some political votes out of the way now to try to set things up for the 2014 election, and they’re trying to do this in order to affect fundraising.”

Later this month, Democrats are considering bringing up legislation to raise the minimum wage. The federal wage floor, set at $7.25 an hour, hasn’t been increased since 2009.

Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has introduced a measure to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour and index it to inflation.

Senate Democrats will meet privately Nov. 7 to discuss legislative options for a minimum wage increase, Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, told reporters today.

“We’re going to try to bring it up,” Reid said.

Manufacturing Boost

Democrats also are crafting a package of bills to boost jobs in the manufacturing sector. Senate leaders haven’t released details, though Trumka issued an Oct. 29 statement supporting the effort.

“A revival of the manufacturing sector is a crucial element for restoring balance to our economy by creating middle-class jobs,” he said. “This has to be a top-level goal if we are to put the economy back on track.”

Democrats’ proposal aimed at barring employment discrimination based on sexual orientation has drawn support from major companies, including Bank of America Corp., Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., Chevron Corp., Citigroup Inc., Microsoft Corp., Wells Fargo & Co. and Yahoo! Inc.

Several of the Senate Republicans who voted yesterday to advance the legislation are from Democratic-leaning states. They include Maine’s Susan Collins, who is seeking a fourth term next year, and Nevada’s Dean Heller.

Judging Skills

“This bill would affirm the principle that individuals in the workplace should be judged on their skills and their abilities and not on extraneous criteria like sexual orientation,” Collins, a longtime sponsor of the legislation, said yesterday in a speech on the Senate floor.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, along with fellow Kentucky Republican Rand Paul, is sponsoring an amendment designed to curb requirements that workers join or pay dues to labor unions as a condition of employment.

“It’s basic fairness,” McConnell said today. “Over the years, big labor has come to care more about its perks and power than the workers it’s charged with protecting.”

Employment Bias

Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have passed laws banning employment bias based on sexual orientation, while 17 states and D.C. also prohibit gender-identity discrimination, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based advocacy group. The bill would apply a uniform standard nationwide.

A similar measure last came up for a Senate vote in 1996, when it narrowly failed on a 50-49 vote with five Democrats opposing it. The Senate yesterday voted 61-30, with 60 votes needed, to advance the measure.

“Times have changed and their actions reflect that,” Jim Manley, a former Reid aide, said of the growing Senate support for the measure.

Reid said today that “one federal law protecting all Americans from discrimination, instead of a patchwork of ineffective and inefficient state and local laws,” would be “simpler and less confusing for businesses and employees.”

The Nevada Democrat chided House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and other Republican opponents of the measure, calling claims the bill would hurt business “untrue” and “callous.”

A Columbia University study estimated that majorities in all 50 states support the theme of the anti-discrimination legislation, compared with majorities in 36 states in 1996.

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