A top election-year proposal from Democrats -- a bid to raise the federal minimum wage -- was rejected by Republicans in the Senate, who blocked legislation Wednesday to boost the rate to $10.10 an hour.
President Obama has turned the plight of the nation's low-wage workers into a battle cry for Democrats as they try to appeal to voters while the economy continues to sputter. Several states have advanced their own wage hikes amid congressional inaction.
"It's time for Republicans in Congress to listen to the majority of Americans who say it's time to give America a raise," the president said before the midday vote.
However, the effort made little headway with Republicans, who argued that the rate hike would cost jobs. The measure was blocked by a GOP filibuster on a party-line vote, 54-42.
Republican Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming said the minimum-wage jobs he held as young man -- a window washer and "stock boy" -- prepared him for eventually owning his own business.
"These are jobs where we learn to be dependable, to work with other employees and to learn that work ethic," Enzi said. Today's workers, he noted, often "don't know how to interrupt their texting to wait on a customer."
The proposal would have initially boosted the minimum wage, now $7.25 an hour, to $8.20, then again in 95-cent increments over two years to $10.10.
A Congressional Budget Office report said a higher rate would reduce employment by about 500,000 workers, but noted that "many more" would see an increase in earnings. Studies show about 28 million Americans - low-wage workers and their families - would benefit from the increase.
The White House initially considered a more modest increase to about $9 an hour, but Democrats in Congress pushed for the higher rate, which would be the first since President George W. Bush increased the $5.15 hourly rate after Democrats became the majority in Congress in 2007.
The issue had threatened to divide Democrats in an election year when several conservative-state senators are up for reelection.
But Tuesday, all Democrats voted to advance the measure, except Sen. Mark Pryor, who was in his home state of Arkansas after the week's devastating storms.
One Republican, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, joined Democrats to advance the issue.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) voted against the bill as a procedural move, enabling him to bring the legislation back for another vote -- which Democrats have vowed to do to continue pounding the issue before the November election.