WASHINGTON — Long before hitting Capitol Hill, they scrounged as restaurant servers, fast-food workers and paperboys. But even now, making $174,000 a year, several Tennessee and Georgia Republicans in Congress oppose raising the minimum wage for the laborers who came after them.
President Barack Obama recently pitched lifting the minimum wage to $9 an hour from $7.25 currently, calling it "the difference between groceries and the food bank" for millions of American families.
But Southern Republican lawmakers see the move as an impediment to employers and economic growth.
"You hurt the people you're trying to help," U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said in an interview. "As you raise the wage level, you reduce the number of individuals that employers can hire through expansion."
Told of Isakson's comments, U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., turned red outside the House chamber.
"I can't imagine working for seven, eight dollars an hour," the Memphis Democrat said. "Nobody else up here can either. We don't spend less than 20 dollars apiece on lunch and to think somebody makes seven or eight dollars an hour -- it's not even subsistence. It's absurd."
One of only two Democratic congressmen from Tennessee, Cohen routinely finds himself outnumbered by his Republican Volunteer State peers. Several Tennessee Republicans said first jobs aren't designed for higher wages; instead, they're someplace to begin achieving the American Dream.
"Minimum-wage mandates knock people off the economic ladder because they destroy jobs for low-income, largely minority young people such as those who work in restaurants," said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander. "Getting one of those jobs is a good way to get started."
But the nation appears to align with Obama and Cohen. More than 70 percent of Americans support the president's proposed wage increase, with 26 percent opposed, according to a new USA Today/Pew Research Center poll. Among Republicans, 50 percent back Obama's measure, with 47 percent opposed.
"It stimulates the economy," Cohen said. "Plus, it's humane. It's the right thing to do."
About 196,000 workers in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia work for the minimum wage, according to the Department of Labor. Congress hasn't raised the wage since 2009.
Some Democrats have said Obama's proposal is too low. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced legislation Tuesday that would bring the hourly rate to $10.10 and peg it to inflation.
As with most of Obama's proposals, House Republicans oppose this one. Some campaigned on humble beginnings.
During his re-election bid last summer, U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., ran a campaign video in which he remembered earning $2.10 an hour and "getting a 10-cent raise" as a 17-year-old McDonald's staffer. In today's dollars, the Ooltewah Republican's 1980 wages amount to about $5.87 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's about $1.38 below the current hourly wage.
But in a recent interview, Fleischmann opposed raising the minimum wage, saying the president "came out of nowhere" with an unrealistic proposal. Fleischmann spokesman Tyler Threadgill said Tuesday the congressman wants "an environment where government gets out of the way" and allows the American people to innovate and create jobs.
"Congressman Fleischmann is a believer in the free market," Threadgill said.
Obama simplified his own message in his State of the Union address.
"Working folks shouldn't have to wait year after year for the minimum wage to go up while CEO pay has never been higher," he said.
Alexander shrugged that off as a false analogy, recalling a trajectory that began with mowing lawns in high school and serving food as a college student.
"I got started waiting tables," Tennessee's senior senator said. "I got tired of it and soon wanted the maximum wage."
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said he wouldn't dismiss Obama's idea outright. Promising not to offer "the standard pat answer" to the question of raising wages, the former Chattanooga mayor said he's going to pay "close attention" to whatever the president suggests.
Corker implied there's a middle ground between minimum wage requirements and having the sense to treat employees fairly.
"When I ran my construction company, I always wanted my employees to make more than industry standard," he said. "I wanted them to know that if they worked with me they were not going to be in poverty."
Staff writer Louie Brogdon contributed to this report.