By DAVID ESPO
Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney renewed his support Wednesday for automatic increases in the federal minimum wage to keep pace with inflation, a position sharply at odds with traditional GOP business allies, conservatives and the party’s senior lawmakers. “I haven’t changed my thoughts on that,” the former Massachusetts governor told reporters aboard his chartered campaign plane, referring to a stand he has held for a decade.
He did not say if he would ask Congress to approve the change if he wins the White House this fall.
Congress first enacted federal minimum wage legislation in 1938 and has raised it sporadically in the years since. The last increase, approved in 2007, took effect in three installments and reached $7.25 an hour for covered workers effective July 24, 2009. It has never been allowed to rise automatically, as Romney envisions.
Romney’s chief rival for the nomination, Newt Gingrich, criticized Romney for the stance, pointing to previous periods of hyperinflation and saying it would end up costing way too much money. “That would be a very dangerous idea,” Gingrich said.
Romney also drew criticism from the anti-tax Club for Growth. “Indexing the minimum wage would be an absolute job killer,” the group’s president, Chris Chocola, said in a statement. He called the proposal “anti-growth.”
Organized labor generally supports increases in the minimum wage, and Romney’s position could give him cross-over appeal among blue-collar Democrats in a general election campaign.
Republicans have generally opposed attempts to raise it, although in 1996, the GOP-controlled Congress passed an election-year increase that included a package of tax cuts for business and a subminimum wage to apply to new, younger employees. At the time lawmakers were considering the 2007 legislation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce registered its disapproval.
“Any minimum wage increase will significantly affect the bottom line of the nation’s small business owners,” said Bruce Josten, the executive vice president for government affairs at the organization, which says it represents more than 3 million businesses and organizations across the country.
A spokesman for the organization declined to comment on Romney’s statement. The National Federation of Independent Business says on its website that it opposes any increase in the current federal minimum wage.”Mandatory wage increases not only hurt small businesses, but their employees as well,” the group says. “It has not been proven to reduce poverty or narrow the income gap and puts a stranglehold on America’s top job creators: small businesses.”
A spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner, Michael Steel, said Congress’ top Republican “is following the presidential campaign but has not been commenting on the individual candidates’ specific proposals.” Boehner opposed the most recent increase that passed Congress. An aide to Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Romney’s statement.
As a candidate for governor of Massachusetts in 2002, Romney said he supported minimum wage increases in line with inflation. Five years ago, he said he liked the “idea of getting the political debate out and I like the idea of not having the huge jumps as we do now.”