By Christi Parsons and Michael A. Memoli, Tribune Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Wednesday that Republicans were “not necessarily coldhearted” in their policies but then devoted much of his speech at the University of Michigan to lampooning GOP opposition to his views on economic issues, including his proposal to raise the federal minimum wage.
As Congress gears up for a debate on his proposal to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, Obama said lawmakers would have to decide between sticking with him or sticking it to working Americans.
“They’ve got to make a clear choice — talk the talk about valuing hard work and families, or walk the walk and actually value hard-working families,” Obama said. “You’ve got a choice. You can give America the shaft, or you can give it a raise.”
The address in Ann Arbor featured Obama in a feisty mood, a day after he announced that 7.1 million people had signed up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act, exceeding the administration’s target.
Obama said that if Republicans tried to sell their economic plans at the deli where he had just ordered a Reuben, “they’d have to call it the Stinkburger or the Meanwich.” And he said opponents to a minimum-wage increase complain it will primarily help young people, which he suggested was not much different than yelling, “Get off my lawn!”
The edgy message opened a new phase for Obama. With the rollout of his 2010 health law nearly complete, the president is now focusing on the congressional elections and on keeping the Senate in Democratic hands, a task his advisers think depends in part on his ability to draw a sharp contrast with the GOP’s economic proposals.
For starters, Obama is leading off with the fight to raise the $7.25 minimum wage, an idea that polls have shown is favored by a strong majority of Americans.
But even as Obama used the minimum wage to highlight a difference with Republicans, Democrats on Capitol Hill are preparing for the politics of the issue to grow more complicated.
Democrats concede that they are unlikely to get enough support from Republicans to overcome a 60-vote procedural hurdle to advance the measure. But there is also some concern that an effort by Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), to support a smaller increase — perhaps to $9 an hour — could siphon off some Democratic support. Collins is the only Republican senator running for re-election this year in a state that Obama won in 2012.
A Collins aide said the senator has had discussions over the last three weeks with a number of Democrats about packaging a wage increase with other economic measures, including tax credits for small businesses.
Senate Democratic leaders say they are committed to passing the president’s $10.10 proposal. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, the number three Democrat in the Senate, argued Wednesday that other Republicans had made it clear they would not support a minimum-wage measure no matter what the increase might be.
“We’re sticking with $10.10,” Schumer said. “We’re not negotiating against ourselves.”
But Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the number two Democrat, raised the possibility of a compromise, although he also predicted that Democrats would “hold our votes” to open debate on an increase to the $10.10 level.
“Let me be honest about this,” he said. “If we reach a level where we don’t have the votes to pass it, then we have to be open for conversation about what it might look like in the future.”
It took months of work to advance an extension of unemployment insurance benefits, a measure that could finally pass the Senate on Thursday. The plan attracted enough Republican votes to end a filibuster Wednesday.
“How many times did we come at that before we finally reached a bipartisan agreement?” Durbin said.
In the Republican-controlled House, an aide to Speaker John A. Boehner (R-OH), took issue with a minimum-wage increase, noting reports from economists who say that the president’s proposal would lead to job losses.
“The president’s plan would increase costs for consumers and eliminate jobs for those who need them the most,” Boehner spokesman Brendan Buck said. “The House is going to continue focusing on our plan to protect workers’ hours and create jobs, not the president’s plan to destroy them.”
In Michigan, where the retirement of Sen. Carl Levin has fueled GOP hopes of picking up a Democratic seat, Obama delivered a sharp-edged critique that fused Republican policy with Republican personality.
The new House Republican budget plan is a replay of the party’s 2012 campaign themes, the president said, “like that movie ‘Groundhog Day,’ except it’s not funny.”
Photo: pbarcas via Flickr