Kathleen Hunter
Bloomberg News

U.S. Senate Republicans blocked legislation to raise the federal minimum wage as the chamber’s Democrats pledged to hold more votes on the measure before November’s election.

The Senate, by a 54-42 vote with 60 required, lacked support to advance the bill, which would increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from $7.25. President Barack Obama called for the increase in his State of the Union address in January, and today the administration said in a statement it “strongly supports” the Senate bill.

“Millions of American workers will be watching how each senator votes,” Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said on the Senate floor before the vote. “For Republicans, this vote will demonstrate whether they truly care about the economy.”

Raising the minimum wage is a central element of congressional Democrats’ election-year focus on income inequality, an issue they say resonates with voters and will help them keep control of the chamber. Republicans must gain a net six seats in November to take a majority in the Senate.

Republicans oppose the measure, which they say will cost jobs.

“Washington Democrats are just not serious about helping the middle class,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

Ruled Out

Reid has ruled out raising the wage to less than $10.10 an hour, even as Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, has been seeking support for an alternative that would include a smaller increase. No Democrats have publicly signed on to that effort.

A February report by the Congressional Budget Office, Congress’s nonpartisan research arm, said the Democratic plan may cost as many as 500,000 jobs while lifting about 900,000 people out of poverty.

Obama plans to speak in support of the wage increase from the White House today at 3:10 p.m. Washington time.

In a letter to senators yesterday, the National Retail Federation urged opposition to the measure. The organization’s members include Target Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

“Our nation’s economy is continuing to struggle to create jobs, and this legislation will likely make it worse, particularly among younger workers,” wrote David French, the group’s senior vice president for government relations.

House Opposition

If Senate Democrats could muster the votes to pass a minimum wage increase, the proposal still probably won’t become law. It faces opposition in the Republican-led House of Representatives and probably wouldn’t come to a vote there.

“Raising the minimum wage may benefit a small number of people, but it’s not a real solution to poverty, income inequality, or the harmful side effects of Obamacare,” House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, wrote on his blog today.

The Senate measure’s chief sponsor, Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, told reporters yesterday that support for the wage increase may build in subsequent rounds of votes as the public becomes more aware of the issue. Polls show support for raising the minimum wage.

“I think more and more people are going to be talking about this in local communities, and we’ve got a lot of businesses on board now that think this is the right thing to do,” Harkin said. “So yeah, I think the pressure’s going to mount.”