WASHINGTON, D.C. — A bidding war of sorts has broken out in Washington state, where politicians are scrambling to raise the state's minimum wage of $9.32, already the highest in the nation.
Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who went to the White House on Friday to discuss the issue, wants a minimum ranging from $10.82 to $11.82 per hour.
A group of state House Democrats wants it to hit $12 an hour by 2017.
And the new Seattle mayor, Ed Murray, has endorsed an even higher minimum wage: $15, matching the rate approved by voters in the small airport city of SeaTac in November.
On the other side of the country, official Washington is watching closely, ready to spotlight the state as the U.S. Senate prepares for a March vote to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10, a plan that has won strong backing from President Barack Obama.
"Washington state gets it — politicians in Washington, D.C., should, too," said Josh Goldstein, a spokesman for the AFL-CIO. He called the state "a leading example of what's possible for the rest of the country."
But increasing the wage rate for the nation's poorest workers could be a heavy lift, both in Washington, D.C., and in Olympia.
On Capitol Hill, opponents got new ammunition on Tuesday from the Congressional Budget Office, which said U.S. businesses likely would shed a half-million jobs by 2016 if Congress approves the higher minimum wage.
Two of the state's top Republicans in Congress, Reps. Doc Hastings of Pasco and Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane, both say they're ready to oppose an increase. Both represent districts in the eastern part of the state, where the cost of living is lower and median household incomes generally are below state averages.
In Washington state, raising the minimum wage is proving to be a tough sell, with many who fear that the higher cost of labor already is chasing jobs to nearby border states.
"When Idaho has a $7.25 minimum wage just a few miles away, it can have a significant impact on where businesses locate," said Republican state Sen. Michael Baumgartner of Spokane.
Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington state said that an easy way to end the disparity would be for Republicans to accept the $10.10 federal minimum, which would apply to all 50 states. And she wants the wage rate indexed to inflation, which would result in automatic increases, matching the system in place in Washington.
"I think our state prides itself on leading the way and showing that our workers are valued," said Murray, a veteran member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which is expected to approve the plan before it goes to the full Senate for a vote next month.
A former preschool teacher, Murray is eager to teach Congress her version of a lesson: Paying employees the current federal minimum wage, which computes to $15,000 a year, is a good way to guarantee that people stay in poverty and ultimately hurts the U.S. economy.
"If you're earning $15,000 a year, you are not going to a movie, you are not going to get ice cream for your kids, you're not buying any extra clothes," Murray said.
"But when you put a little bit of money in people's hands, then they can make those purchases that are actually good for businesses and allow them to grow and hire more people."
After meeting with Obama and other administration officials on Friday, Inslee said it makes no sense to have people working 40 hours a week and still be forced to rely on public assistance to get by.
"When people can't eat, they're not good consumers," he told reporters.
And Inslee, a former congressman, dismissed the Congressional Budget Office report, citing other studies that show any job loss would be minimal: "With all due respect, they are not the experts on this issue."
He noted that just last month, seven recipients of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences recommended raising the minimum wage.
A raise would be welcome news for Martina Phelps, who earns $9.32 at a McDonald's restaurant in Seattle. She lives in a two-bedroom apartment with seven relatives.
If she gets a raise, she said, she'd like to get a place of her own, maybe even go to college and buy a car.
"There's people at my job that have master's and bachelor's degrees and they're working at McDonald's, being managers," said Phelps, 21, of Skyway.
"Some of them have two jobs. And it's like, why are we still at the bottom?"