Just a few days ago, Democrats were preparing to leave Republicans behind on a minimum wage hike. Now the GOP might be their only shot at raising the wage this Congress.
The ruling against including a $15 minimum wage in this month’s coronavirus relief bill by the Senate parliamentarian, its official rules referee, dealt a major blow to Democrats and President Joe Biden’s agenda. But that decision was also clarifying: With Democrats holding only 50 Senate seats and divided over gutting the filibuster, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer probably needs 10 Republicans now on any successful deal to raise the minimum wage.
Democrats have batted away the GOP proposal to raise the wage to $10 an hour and enact stricter immigration vetting requirements for employers. But as Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), put it: “The nice thing about that is, it helped define the floor, from which we can only imagine a pathway up.”
“It is a more durable solution if it’s 60 votes,” Coons said on Monday after a couple of “very preliminary” weekend discussions with Republicans on raising the wage.
Republicans “realize it’s got to be raised,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine). “There are three principle pieces: The number, the phase-in and the tipped wage. Those are the three things we should work on. We ought to try and have some discussions. That’s the way you’re supposed to legislate.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) proposal would raise the wage to $15 in steps by 2025. It does not have unanimous support among Senate Democrats, and Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) has suggested a compromise number of $11. But Sanders is insisting that Democrats try to eliminate the filibuster to pass the minimum wage hike and ruled out going lower than $15 hourly, which he said “is a compromise already.”
Several Republicans said on Monday they’d be open to going higher than the $10-an-hour GOP bill helmed by Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Romney said Monday he has been discussing a possible path forward with Democrats on the wage hike and suggested working with the minority was the most likely path.
“I don’t understand this all-or-nothing approach. Going from $7.25 to 10 dollars an hour … is a substantial and long overdue increase. So why would the progressives to whom Chuck is clearly listening be opposed to that?” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) of Schumer. “It sounds like Chuck wants an issue, not a solution.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he’s studying a proposal from Waffle House that would phase in a wage increase to $15 over six or seven years. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), who supports the Cotton-Romney proposal, said she’s open to going above $10 but that Democrats “have to realize it’ll have to be a compromise figure.”
The GOP’s proposal for stricter enforcement of the immigration system known as E-verify could prove to be a sticking point, however. That program confirms employment eligibility for workers, but some Democrats would be wary of discussing any change that could target undocumented workers as a condition for a smaller minimum wage bump.
Rather than deal with the GOP, Democrats could also try and wait for another shot at raising the wage using the protections of budget reconciliation, a tool that allows them to evade the Senate’s supermajority requirement but has arcane rules governing its usage. To make that happen, they’d have to present the parliamentarian with a different argument after trying in vain to force a wage increase into an emergency Covid relief bill.
Senate Democrats have been campaigning on raising the wage since 2014, and some individual senators have been pushing for far longer. The party could be at risk of getting nothing unless it engages with Republicans. Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin said it’s most likely the Democrats will have to compromise if they want to raise the federal wage above the current, stagnant $7.25 level that last rose in 2009.
“We certainly need enough votes to overcome a filibuster, and that requires 10 more than we have,” Durbin said. “I think that’s the only recourse.”
But some Democrats aren’t ready to make any deal with the other party. Progressives are saying the only way forward is to gut the filibuster and kill its 60-vote requirement on legislation — or at least overrule the parliamentarian’s advice to exclude the wage increase from the bill. Both those options are endorsed by Sanders, who plans to offer a minimum wage amendment when the Covid bill reaches the floor, yet currently lack the votes to advance given opposition from Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said she did not want to wait for either Republicans to get on board or for a second reconciliation bill. Of the GOP’s current bid on the minimum wage, she retorted: “That’s just not a serious proposal. And doesn’t work.” She said getting rid of the filibuster is the answer to most of the party’s procedural problems.
Democrats have one more option on the wage hike: wait. They could also gamble on picking up Senate seats in 2022 to ease their path to gutting the filibuster, but that would stall progress on the issue for at least two years. And Republicans say there’s a deal to be had — if Democrats are willing to engage.
“We’ve got some people that are interested in it,” said Senate Minority Whip John Thune. “The $15 is a non-starter. And I don’t think we have anybody on our side [for that], and there’s some Democrats that are going to be opposed to that too.”