Minimum wage hike strategy vexes Senate Democrats

By | February 26, 2021

Regardless of whether Senate rules allow Democrats to add a $15 minimum wage to a $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, the House is moving forward on it. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

A ruling in favor of the minimum wage increase by the Senate parliamentarian — its official rules referee — will force Senate Democrats to confront the political reality that they probably don’t have the votes right now to make good on Biden’s plan to get to $15 an hour. But if the Senate parliamentarian rules against the wage hike, things won’t get easier: Democrats will need to come up with a back-up plan.

And as both parties anticipate the parliamentarian’s decision, there is no official Plan B.

“Do we have a plan if she rules that it’s not allowable?” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) “The answer is no.”

Democrats are trying to squeeze the minimum wage hike into the so-called budget reconciliation process, which allows them to avoid a GOP filibuster and pass their Covid aid bill with 50 Democratic votes. Otherwise, they will need 10 Republicans to support it, an unlikely proposition given the yawning chasm between the two parties on the issue.

Although Republicans have released a bill raising the wage to $10 an hour and strengthening usage of the e-Verify immigration system among employers, Democrats have little interest in cutting a deal right now.

“They don’t want a minimum wage,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “The public wants this done and the public wants a lot of things done that [Republicans] are unwilling to do.”

Brown said Democrats have discussed among themselves how they might need to alter legislation to pass the Senate. But at least two Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, oppose a wage hike to $15 as part of the coronavirus bill. And Manchin has said that he would like to see the minimum wage increase closer to $11.

Democrats have ruled out an attempt to reject the parliamentarian’s decision, a move that would amount to gutting the filibuster by another means. So if the parliamentarian strikes the minimum wage language, some Democrats have discussed trying to attach it to a second stimulus package later this year, reasoning that the budgetary impacts of a change in the wage might work better in a jobs bill passed under reconciliation.

Another option is trying to nudge small businesses to raise their wages using tax breaks, if that passes muster with the parliamentarian.

“I’m not going to say exactly” how the party would handle a setback with the parliamentarian, said Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the No. 4 Senate Democrat. “I really don’t want to get into negotiating that at the moment.”

But it’s difficult to plan without the critical information they need. And as senators left Thursday afternoon to head home for the weekend, the chamber remained in a state of uncertainty over the fate of the minimum wage provision. Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has argued that the hourly increase should be included in the coronavirus relief package because raising the minimum wage would increase the deficit.

Senate Republicans counter that the provision is extraneous, will lead to job losses and hurt small businesses. They expect the parliamentarian to strike it — which would both avoid an intra-party Democratic fight in the short-term and complicate the prospects for passing a long-term Democratic priority.

While House Democratic leaders and the White House have been deferential to the Senate’s arcane rules, they aren’t exactly willing to change their own priorities in the near-term even if the wonky ways of the upper chamber foul things up.

“The call can take us in either direction,” House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) said of the parliamentarian’s ruling. But he vowed that the House would vote on an increase “no matter what happens” in the parliamentarian’s office.

“If for some reason the parliamentarian rules against it,” Neal said, “then you’re likely to have a vote in the House pretty fast.”

Raising the federal minimum wage from the current $7.25 is a key campaign promise for Democrats, and the $15 is a top priority for progressives and labor unions. The protection of the Senate reconciliation process may be their only opportunity, without a change to the legislative filibuster.

“We need to pass a $15 an hour minimum wage,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “If we can do it through reconciliation, great. If we can’t, then we need to tackle the filibuster issue and then pass minimum wage.”

Even if the parliamentarian rules in favor of the wage hike, the coronavirus relief package could still be amended on the Senate floor when it gets there early next month. Republicans are eager to highlight the divide among Democrats on the issue and could propose an amendment to water down the minimum wage hike. The reconciliation process allows for lengthy amendment offerings from senators in both parties.

Meanwhile, some Democrats question whether Sinema, Manchin and other undecided Democrats would derail the whole Covid package over the single issue of the wage.

The fate of $15 an hour “will depend on whether Sen. Manchin and Sen. Sinema, who have expressed opposition to it, somehow feel that the greater good of the bill is more important than the specific provision of the minimum wage,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.)

One less appealing option available to Democrats is working with the GOP. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is part of a group of Senate Republicans proposing a $10 minimum wage, said Thursday that she thought a bipartisan compromise still could be possible in the Senate.

“It’s obvious that we do need an increase in the minimum wage,” she said. “But I don’t really think it should be part of the Covid package. … A better way would be to bring a bill to the floor and see if we can work it out.”

The last time the minimum wage got a standalone vote on the Senate floor, it failed in 2014 as Democrats sought to increase the hourly rate to $10.10. That experience has convinced many Democrats that their best course of action is to work toward winning over 50 of their members using a reconciliation bill, as opposed to engaging in what many see as fruitless negotiations with Republicans.

“There’s a million angles to it,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “Even though there’s some differences about how much, and how fast, what are the exceptions, it’s such a unifier in our caucus. We’ll figure out a way to get it done. I’m pretty confident about that.”