Democrats left scrambling on a $15 minimum wage now that it appears left out of COVID-19 stimulus bill

Ledyard King, USA TODAY
·6 min read

WASHINGTON – Advocates of a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage scored a temporary victory last week when the House approved the increase in its vote to advance President Joe Biden's COVID-19 relief bill.

But it doesn't appear they'll be popping champagne as the bill goes to a Senate vote this week.

A key Senate official already has ruled the increase that the House passed early Saturday morning cannot be included in the bill. And an effort pushed by progressives to overrule the Senate parliamentarian's decision is one few think is realistic.

Goodbye Plan A.

More: 5 charts show the wide gap between Biden's, Republicans' coronavirus aid proposals

Then there was a proposal being crafted by Senate Democrats to back-door a minimum wage increase by inserting a provision that penalizes large corporations that did not pay their workers at least $15 an hour. The plan, led by Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., conversely would provide income tax credits to small businesses if they paid their workers higher wages.

Activists appeal for a $15 minimum wage near the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill being prepped in Congress includes a provision that over five years would hike the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Activists appeal for a $15 minimum wage near the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill being prepped in Congress includes a provision that over five years would hike the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

But that proposal – Plan B, in effect – has been pulled. Senate Democrats shelved it because of the difficulty of shoehorning such a complex piece of legislation in a bill that needs to move quickly through Congress.

"Basically, the clock ran out," Wyden told reporters Monday.

Biden and Democratic leaders want to pass the relief package that extends unemployment benefits before the current benefits expire March 14.

More: Senate Democrats seek alternatives to $15 minimum wage in Joe Biden's COVID stimulus bill

That has left Democrats scrambling for a Plan C. Essentially, that would most likely be a stand-alone bill raising the wage or including it in a larger measure – like an infrastructure bill – that could get the Republican support necessary for passage. Both would be longer shots than including it in the COVID-19 relief bill.

"It's a matter of basic human decency and fairness. And I am very, very optimistic that we will find another path," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told Capitol Hill reporters Monday. "We're going to do the minimum wage at some point. It may not be this week, but it will be."

Progressives say the relief package is by far the best vehicle to attach the $15 wage increase because the bill is being moved through Congress in a special procedure called reconciliation that allows it to be approved with a simple 51-vote majority rather than the 60 votes needed to overcome a legislative hurdle known as the filibuster.

That would allow Democrats to pass the relief bill without a single Republican senator, since Vice President Kamala Harris could break the tie in the evenly split chamber. That assumes that every Democrat would go along with a relief bill that raises the wage, a step that two Democrats – Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona – have said they oppose.

Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., was one of close to two dozen House Democrats who sent a letter to the Biden administration Monday morning asking them to overrule the Senate parliamentarian and keep the $15 minimum wage in the final bill.

The California liberal said it was an issue many progressives, including groups representing women of color, believed was a “core priority” for Democrats and the country.

“If we're going to do it through reconciliation, we might as well do it now,” Khanna said of some Democrats’ suggestion to try passing the minimum wage in another reconciliation bill.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday that Harris would not initiate the process to overrule the Senate parliamentarian's decision stripping the minimum wage provision out of the COVID-19 relief bill.

It's "not a simple decision. It would also require 50 votes," she said. "The president and the vice president both respect the history of the Senate. They both formerly served in the Senate, and that's not an action we intend to take."

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who is leading the charge for a $15 wage, said last week that the proposal won't stand much of a chance of passing if it's not attached to the relief package because no Republican would support it.

"The only way that we are going to raise the minimum wage is through reconciliation or ending the filibuster," Sanders said.

Congress hasn’t raised the federal minimum wage – now $7.25 an hour – since 2007, even though a recent Pew Research poll shows Americans overwhelmingly favor an increase. Over the past decade, food costs, housing expenses and CEO pay has climbed yet those at the bottom of the economic ladder have not seen similar gains in their wages, progressives contend.

President Barack Obama called on Congress to boost the minimum wage in 2014, but the effort went nowhere. The Democratic-led House voted in 2019 to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, only to see the Republican-controlled Senate kill the proposal.

Currently, 31 states have a minimum wage law that allows at least some workers to be paid less than $10, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. No state has a minimum wage at $15 or above, though the District of Columbia does.

More: $15 minimum wage would boost pay for millions but would cost 1.4 million jobs, report says

More: Republican plan would raise minimum wage to $10 but only if businesses are required to ensure worker legality

More: Republican plan would raise minimum wage to $10 but only if businesses are required to ensure worker legality

Republicans are united against the $15 proposal, citing opposition by some small businesses and an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office which estimates it would result in the loss of as many as 1.4 million jobs. The same analysis said it would boost the pay for as many as 27 million Americans and would lift nearly 1 million out of poverty

Higher wages increase the cost to employers of producing goods and services, and those costs are generally passed on to consumers who usually react by purchasing fewer goods and services, according to the CBO. As a consequence, employers faced with having to scale back their output usually cut back their workforce.

GOP senators Mitt Romney of Utah and Tom Cotton of Arkansas are proposing a $10 wage, but only if businesses are required to use the internet-based E-Verify system designed to prevent employers from hiring undocumented workers.

Contributing: Nicholas Wu

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID stimulus: $15 minimum wage unlikely to be part of Biden's bill