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Living on the minimum: Wage hike divides Republicans

Living on the minimum: One woman's struggle to live on the minimum wage, and the Republican Party's conundrum on what to do about it, as Democrats push to increase it.

As Democrats prepare to push legislation increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10,  Republican strategists are split on the merits of the hike.

Some Republicans, like Republican National Committee member Henry Barbour, believe that opposing it hurts the party’s efforts to improve its image outside of its traditional base of support.

“As Republicans, in my opinion, we shouldn't just stiff arm that because there are legitimate needs of working people,” said Barbour of Mississippi. “You've got single moms who are trying to pay for two kids and make the rent and pay for groceries and medical bills. If she’s working for $8.00 an hour and she’s got two different jobs, we've got to be very sensitized to the worker in America and their needs.”

Barbour was one of five Republicans commissioned by the RNC after the 2012 election to self-evaluate the party’s election troubles and find ways to widen its appeal to voters.

That after-election report -- called the Growth and Opportunity Project -- said in part: “The perception, revealed in polling, that the GOP does not care about people is doing great harm to the Party and its candidates on the federal level, especially in presidential years. It is a major deficiency that must be addressed.”

Other Republican strategists disagree.

“There are a whole host of things that [the Republican Party] could do in order to make themselves more appealing to low-income earners. The minimum wage is not one of those,” said Andy Roth, vice president of Club for Growth, one of several influential outside conservative groups expected to stake positions on a potential Senate measure.

Opponents of an increase argue that it would hurt businesses -- by cutting back in the number of workers they could afford, as well as raise the price of products produced.

“If you increase the minimum wage, you may be benefiting that person, but those costs are real,” Roth added. “And that would increase the costs of the products that company produces, maybe it’s food -- fast food.”

There are conflicting opinions on the effects of a required wage increase on businesses. No report or study is widely agreed upon by economists.

But last summer, 100 economists penned a petition supporting an increase to $10.50, writing: “[N]o significant effects on employment opportunities result when the minimum wage rises in reasonable increments. This is because the increases in overall business costs resulting from a minimum wage increase are modest... Businesses can readily absorb these small cost increases through minor increases in prices and productivity.”

Barbour also cautions that an increase must be fair to businesses, arguing that too large of a bump would extend burdensome costs. And like Roth, Barbour says there are other effective alternatives to helping low-income workers. 

The federal minimum wage hit its peak value in 1968 at $10.74 per hour (adjusted to 2013 inflation figures). In 1979, the then-minimum wage of $2.90 would compare to an hourly income of $9.33 in 2013.

Yet today, the federal minimum wage stands at $7.25 per hour.

Last March, House Republicans voted unanimously against a proposal that would have raised the minimum wage to $10.10 over three years and adjusted the wage based on inflation in future years.

But Republicans have not always been so adamantly opposed to an increase. George W. Bush signed one into law as president in 2007.

Indeed, there are 24 Republican senators today who were sitting members in 2007, and 22 of them voted “yes” for the amendment that provided the increase. The exceptions were Oklahoma Sens. Tom Coburn (“no” vote) and James Inhofe (abstained). Seven now-senators also voted as House members in 2007: Sens. John Boozman (yes), Mark Kirk (yes), Jerry Moran (yes), Jeff Flake (no), Roy Blunt (no), Dean Heller (no), and Roger Wicker (no).

In the House, just 37 of today’s 102 GOP House members who were in office in 2007 voted “yes” on the increase.

The 2007 amendment, however, was more attractive to the GOP because of its inclusion of tax breaks for small businesses, indicating the House could be a significant obstacle in passing legislation this time around--even if the Senate approves the measure.

A Republican-controlled House of Representatives under Speaker Newt Gingrich also passed a clean increase in 1996. Under Gingrich’s helm, 40 percent of Republican House members voted for the measure. The New York Times wrote at the time: “Speaker Newt Gingrich, concerned about a damaging political issue, clearly wanted the bill passed, though he said nothing publicly.”

The debate over the minimum wage isn't just political; it's personal, too.

In Washington, D.C., Stacia Robinson, 23, first began working at McDonald’s when she was 17. She lives in her aunt’s home in Northwest D.C. with six others. Robinson does not have a father, and her mom lost her vision nine years ago.

“I just have faith that one day I will be able to afford things--I will have money and, I don’t know, it’s like the American Dream that I was sold,” Robinson told First Read in December. “And I believed it. But sometimes it’s hard.”

She makes $8.54 per hour.