Democrats plot their Plan B to save minimum wage hike

By | February 22, 2021

Democrats are scrambling to piece together a backup plan that could save their minimum wage hike from getting tossed out of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief package and win over moderates wary of the proposal.

The budget tool that Democrats are using to steer Biden’s plan through Congress without GOP support, known as reconciliation, is laden with thorny restrictions waiting to ensnare the $15 minimum wage boost they’ve added to the next tranche of coronavirus relief. The wage increase is also running into strong headwinds from two influential Senate Democratic centrists, Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), who are both resistant to enacting the sweeping policy change through the powerful budget process.

The White House and Hill Democrats have been waiting to see how the Senate’s parliamentarian, its official adviser on procedural matters, opines on the wage increase. That ruling could happen as early as Tuesday, according to a senior Senate Democratic aide. In the meantime, Democrats are already weighing several options to try to save the wage hike from fully imploding and make it more palatable for moderates in their own party — whom congressional leaders need lockstep support from in order to muscle the Covid-19 aid package through the Senate with a simple majority vote before unemployment benefits expire for millions of Americans in mid-March.

“There are two issues going on right now — one is Byrd Rule problems, one is whip problems,” said House Budget Chair John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), referring in the first case to the procedural hurdle that could quash the wage hike in the Senate. “If Joe Manchin isn’t going to vote for it because of the minimum wage, I assume we have to take it out or compromise in a way that he would accept.”

Some Democrats are discussing the possibility of capping the increase at less than $15 an hour, to possibly $11 or $12, Yarmuth said. Such a move could satisfy wonky Byrd Rule restrictions that constrain the projected cost of the pandemic relief proposal outside of a 10-year budget window, he said.

Budget rules that allow the bill to pass the Senate without the threat of a filibuster essentially require that all pieces of the bigger package have a significant effect on federal spending, revenues and the debt within a decade. If the package increases deficits beyond that window, approval from the Senate parliamentarian can get problematic.

Manchin has previously said that an $11 minimum wage hike, adjusted for inflation, would make more sense for his home state of West Virginia. Sinema’s support for any wage hike would likely be harder to win, since .

Liberals, however, remain confident that the minimum wage boost will survive without any compromises — and they’re confident of a parliamentarian ruling in their favor.

“What Sen. Sanders is fighting for is a $15 minimum wage,” the senior Senate Democratic aide said. “Period. End of discussion.“

Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.