WASHINGTON — As the crisis in Ukraine is taking up the majority mental energy on Capitol Hill, President Barack Obama will head to Connecticut on Wednesday to once again push for a federal increase in the minimum wage.
"Oh, that's a good idea. In the middle of this crisis?" scoffed Republican Sen. John McCain, who this week criticized Obama's foreign policy as "feckless." "You can't make this up."
Despite expected Republican criticism, congressional Democrats say the president is doing exactly what he should be doing, and traveling to Connecticut is exactly the right move. And while his minimum wage message might get lost this particular week in a very crowded news cycle as the situation in Crimea unfolds, they say the president's domestic policy message will eventually resonate.
"When you're talking about Ukraine, when you are talking about Crimea, when you are talking about Russia — the international issues — clearly it's a somewhat crowded marketplace of ideas right now," Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters on Tuesday.
"There's a lot going on. The trick is we don't just have to say it today, we can say it next week and tomorrow. It's something we think is very important we'll continue to focus on," he added.
Democrats have focused on the minimum wage and extending unemployment insurance as key pieces of their 2014 policy agenda and strategy. And they are convinced that the public is ultimately on their side. House Democrats have been collecting signatures for a discharge petition — a rarely successful effort — to force a vote on the minimum wage on the floor.
Even without a foreign policy crisis, there's a slim-to-none chance that Republican leadership would bring up a raise of the federal minimum wage. Which is why, Democrats say, it's important for the president to continue to talk about it.
Sen. Chris Murphy, who as the chairman of the Senate's Europe subcommittee has been heavily involved in the calls for Russian sanctions and economic aid to Ukraine, applauded the president for "keeping his eye on the ball."
"I think people in this town are paying a lot more attention to Ukraine than the people out there on Main Street. I think folks on Main Street are much more worried about the minimum wage than they are about Ukraine. That's the reality of it," he told BuzzFeed. "I think they are interested in Ukraine but I think they'd much rather have us spend a billion dollars on their behalf than a billion dollars on Ukraine despite the importance of that expenditure."
House and Senate leaders are preparing to move very quickly on both sanctions and aid — lightning speed for a Congress that really doesn't do much. As the same time, Majority Leader Harry Reid will try to pass an extension of unemployment insurance again soon.
"We were elected, whether you are the president or a member of Congress, to walk and chew gum at the same time," said Rep. Eric Swalwell. "That's why the president has a secretary of state who is in the region…while people in Ukraine are standing up for democracy, people here are hungry and want to work. Those two are not mutually exclusive. We have to be able to do both."