Senate Democrats are facing internal divisions over efforts to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which could result in the proposal being watered down or jettisoned from the coronavirus relief bill.
The wage hike is part of President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief proposal, and it has the support of powerful progressives in both chambers and members of leadership.
But because of the 50-50 Senate split, proponents need to win over every Senate Democrat. That’s setting up a fight over the wage increase as they craft the final version of the relief package.
“I support the increase in the federal minimum wage to the $15 level. I think it's way overdue that we change it. And I think it would be a good thing to do. There may be other members, even on the Democratic side, who have some concerns about it,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.).
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) added that he believes most Democrats want to see an increase in the minimum wage but “the exact details on how it will be implemented, the period of time, effect on tipped wages and such, I believe that's open at least to conversation."
Democrats passed a budget resolution this week that paves the way for them to craft a coronavirus relief bill without GOP support by sidestepping the 60-vote legislative filibuster. Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has touted the resolution as the vehicle for boosting the federal minimum wage.
“Passing this budget resolution will give us the tools we need to raise the minimum wage to a living wage of $15 an hour and provide substantial help to struggling small businesses to help them cover the cost of these wage increases,” Sanders said from the Senate floor on Thursday.
Democrats still need a determination from the parliamentarian about whether an increase in the minimum wage complies with the arcane rules that determine what can, and cannot, be passed under the reconciliation process to bypass a filibuster.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) largely avoided the issue during a weekly press conference.
“Look, there's going to be a process, as we said. We believe we have very strong support for a bold, strong plan on the level of what the president proposed. All the details are going to be worked out as we go through the committee process, and we hope Republicans will join us. But we are not going to dilute this so it doesn't help the American people get out of this crisis quickly,” Schumer said.
No Republicans have indicated they support a $1.9 trillion package. Ten Republicans proposed a $618 billion proposal — roughly a third of the size backed by Democrats — and several Republicans have said it's too soon to consider another package after Congress passed $900 billion in relief funding in late December.
Republicans have also signaled they don’t believe the minimum wage component of the broader bill complies with the reconciliation rules, and that it shouldn't be part of the final relief package.
“I personally support an increase in the minimum wage, not to $15, but I think we need one. But it doesn’t belong in the COVID,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who supports the $618 billion measure, adding that a wage hike is “not relevant to treatment or the economic recovery, or getting vaccines out.”
The level of opposition from Republicans underscores that Democrats are likely to have to pass coronavirus relief on their own — absent a significant shift from either side. That means all 50 Senate Democrats will have to unify behind a minimum wage proposal in order for it to make it into the bill.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki stopped short of insisting that a wage increase be included in the final coronavirus relief package.
“The president feels strongly that we need to raise the minimum wage, and many economists agree with him, and looks forward to working with Congress to do it. Whether it can be done through the reconciliation process will be determined according to the House and Senate, but I'm not going to negotiate further from here,” she told reporters.
House Democrats say they are planning to put the wage hike in their bill, though they acknowledge that it might ultimately be stripped out.
“We're very strongly in favor of raising the minimum wage and we hope it does qualify for the reconciliation because, as you know, the Republicans tend not to be for raising the minimum wage,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters.
But even setting aside potential procedural hurdles, it’s not clear that raising the minimum wage has the 50 votes needed in the Senate.
A stand-alone bill offered by Sanders had the support of an additional 37 senators. That legislation would gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2025.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) told The Hill that he did not support a $15 minimum wage. He separately said in a Fox News interview that he didn’t think including it complied with Senate reconciliation rules either.
“The only thing we can do during this reconciliation is anything that comes within the financial realms of what we're dealing with. It's called a budget reconciliation, has to be within the budget lines. That does not come within that at all. And it really needs to be debated,” Manchin said.
He added that “anybody that goes to work in the morning and works 40 hours a week and works 50 weeks a year, that's 2,000 hours, should be above — a family of three — above the poverty guidelines — and that's not $15.”
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said that while he supports raising the minimum wage, there needs to be a discussion about the process.
“I’m supportive of increasing the minimum wage. There has to be some conversation about how it’s done,” Tester said.
Asked if he supported including a $15 per hour minimum wage in the coronavirus relief bill, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally, demurred by noting that the talks were just getting started. Coons is not a co-sponsor of Sanders’s stand-alone bill.
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) also did not sign onto the separate bill to raise the minimum wage. A spokesperson declined to say whether he would support it.