It doesn’t look like a $15 minimum wage is going to happen anytime soon.
It sure seemed like it had a chance for a while there, though. Democrats wanted it in the coronavirus relief bill, which they’re gearing up to pass through reconciliation, a measure allowing the Senate to advance budget-related matters with a simple 50-vote majority rather than the 60 votes typically required to pass legislation without bringing the filibuster into play. But not just anything can be passed through reconciliation, and the it’s up to the Senate parliamentarian to decide what can stay and what has to go. She deemed last week that raising the minimum wage doesn’t qualify.
There was still some hope for the the millions of Americans in 21 states still earning the federal minimum of $7.25. Sort of. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) were considering a “plan B” late last week that would have bumped up wages by penalizing corporations that didn’t pay workers a living wage. But on Sunday night The Washington Post reported that the workaround had been scrapped over concerns that it would be too difficult to implement, and too easy for companies to skirt through chicanery like reclassifying employees as contractors.
Where does that leave us? Only with vague promises to address the issue at some point down the road. “We’re going to have to spend the next several days or even weeks figuring out what the best path forward is, but he’s committed to doing that,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Fox News Sunday. Low-wage workers now must cross their fingers and hope that “days or even weeks” doesn’t turn into “months or even never.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Vice President Kamala Harris, who along with Biden campaigned on raising the minimum wage, has the power to override the parliamentarian’s ruling, effectively ensuring Senate Democrats would be able to use reconciliation to pass a coronavirus stimulus featuring a nice, gleaming $15 minimum wage measure that would lift close to 1 million Americans out of poverty. She’s not going to do it, though. The White House is adamant. “Certainly that’s not something we would do,” Chief of Staff Ron Klain told MSNBC last week. “We’re going to honor the rules of the Senate and work within that system.”
The blame for inaction doesn’t lie solely with the White House. Even if Harris were to overrule the parliamentarian, all 50 Senate Democrats would need to vote for a relief bill featuring a measure to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2025. This isn’t a given. Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) have both said they oppose the measure, which could make passing a relief bill a little trickier than the Biden administration would like. Nevertheless, there was still a chance Manchin and Sinema would have signed on anyway to avoid sinking the broader. The Biden administration’s refusal to buck the parliamentarian’s ruling closed the door on that possibility.
Progressives are pissed, and on Monday a group of 23 House Democrats led by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Penn.) sent a letter to Biden and Harris urging them to put their reverence for Senate procedure aside and do what they have the power to do: deliver a long-overdue wage increase to millions of low-wage workers at the time they need it most. Biden and Harris both ran on it, and it’s the exact type of thing the 59 percent of Americans who support increasing the minimum wage to $15 thought would be possible if they showed up to the polls to turn the Senate blue — which they did.
“As the United States continues to battle dual economic and public health crises, it is more important now than ever that we deliver relief to Americans,” the letter reads. “Eighty-one million people cast their ballots to elect you on a platform that called for a $15 minimum wage. We urge you to keep that promise and call on the Presiding Officer of the Senate to refute the Senate Parliamentarian’s advice on a Byrd Rule point of order and maintain the $15 minimum wage provision in the American Rescue Plan.”
The letter is an admirable plea, but it’s unlikely to change the administration’s mind. The only immediately conceivable path to a $15 minimum wage would be through a standalone bill that would require at the support of at least 10 Senate Republicans, who are even less willing to go to the mat for the working poor than the Biden administration. Democrats could pass a standalone bill without Republican support by eliminating the filibuster, but doing so is opposed by, you guessed it, Joe Manchin and Krysten Sinema.
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