Progressives, union leaders and activists are demanding that the Biden administration use every tool available to make sure its massive coronavirus relief package includes an increase in the minimum wage.
But, already, there’s one place the White House has hinted it won’t go.
Biden’s team is leaning heavily against the idea of having Vice President Kamala Harris use her powers as president of the Senate to keep the minimum wage provision inside the relief package. She could do so if the Senate parliamentarian determines that hiking the minimum wage to $15-an-hour does not jibe with budgetary rules that allow a bill to pass with just 51 votes in the Senate. Harris, at that point, could be the tie-breaking vote to bypass the parliamentarian.
The White House’s reluctance to consider that step has set up the possibility of an early confrontation between the president and a progressive base that has — to this point — been pleased with his work in office.
“It’s a test for how we use the power of having all three, the House, the Senate and the White House,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.). “Let’s not hand wring over this … We should use every tool in our toolbox.”
Early in his presidency, Biden has taken a historic amount of executive actions. But the president still views himself as an institutionalist, and advisers and allies say he is wary of using the Harris nuclear option. A vice president hasn’t overruled a parliamentarian in more than 40 years. And while the White House is not completely ruling out the idea, officials are skeptical that enough Democrats would vote to keep the wage provision in the relief package even if they deployed the option, a person familiar with the White House’s thinking said.
Biden has already said that increasing the minimum wage might turn into a “separate negotiation” from the relief package. But the administration has not been clear on how and when that separate negotiation might take place, save to affirm their commitment to it.
“The President is firmly committed to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour – that’s why he championed it on the campaign trail and it’s why he put it in his first legislative proposal,” said White House spokesman Mike Gwin. “That commitment will remain unshaken, regardless of what is determined to be feasible through the reconciliation process.”
While the White House may not lack determination, they do lack a clear legislative path. If Democrats can not pass a minimum wage hike in a package that only requires a simple majority vote, then they will need at least ten Republicans in the Senate in addition to their entire caucus to make it law.
Progressive groups and activists aren’t entertaining a separate pathway for the wage increase just yet. Instead, national union heads, alongside local Fight for $15 leaders, are pressuring the White House and Congress to keep the provision in the relief bill. Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the Poor People’s campaign, will visit West Virginia along with Service Employees International Union members to press Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), a skeptic of a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
“We’re going to be a gathering storm in the next three weeks because this is a tipping point,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the SEIU. “It absolutely needs to be in this package.”
SEIU and other unions have had conversations with, or are reaching out to, other Democrats like Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (Nev.), Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), and Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.). SEIU along with a number of other major labor organizations are also planning to send a letter to the White House and Congress on Friday, making the case for why a $15-an-hour wage is a critical piece of the Covid relief package.
“By deferring the hyper minimum wage hike to another day we’re probably signing the death sentences for more Americans who are going to die because of poverty,” said Joe Sanberg, a progressive activist and entrepreneur who briefed Biden’s team on the issue during the transition.
But not everyone inside the Democratic tent shares the belief that the minimum wage hike has to be in the final relief package, even though they say Democrats should push as hard as possible to make it happen.
“My singular objective is to deliver Covid relief, and if we could get the minimum wage in there, that would be monumental and historic,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). “But I also think if minimum wage tanks Covid relief that would also be monumental and historic, but not in a good way.”
And others argued that Biden was right to say that he could get a wage hike done in future legislation.
“Raising the minimum wage is important but it’s not an emergency,” said Matt Bennett, a top official at the centrist-Democratic think tank Third Way. Bennett, who has been talking to both the White House and the Senate about the Covid package, said unemployment insurance running out in March “is an emergency.”
“I believe the minimum wage will be raised within the first two years of the Biden term,” Bennett added. “I don’t think it’ll get necessarily done by the next four weeks.”
Behind the scenes, the White House is asking for patience. A minimum wage hike is a priority to Biden, advisers and allies say, and they’re working to build support that would aid a future negotiation, if one is needed. They note that Biden advocated for a minimum wage increase in an Oval Office meeting with business leaders on Tuesday.
The White House is insistent it has maintained open communication with progressives, including lawmakers and activist groups, on both the $15-an-hour minimum wage provision and, more broadly, the Covid relief plan. A White House official specifically cited a briefing last week with 17 progressive groups. And Jayapal said she’s been in multiple conversations with the administration in the days after Biden said he didn’t believe a minimum wage hike would end up in the reconciliation bill.
Jayapal and other progressive lawmakers, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), are optimistic that the parliamentarian will rule that the minimum wage hike is germane to the budget process. And they are also beginning to lay the predicate for the parliamentarian to be overruled if that determination isn’t made.
“The parliamentarian is not an elected representative of the people,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.). “I’ve never heard us put everything on the balance of what the Senate parliamentarian says when it impacts, especially, a once in a century pandemic relief bill.”
The recent Congressional Budget Office finding that a $15 minimum wage would substantially impact the federal budget was seen as a boon to progressives’ argument for its inclusion, even as the agency found that a hike could lead to 1.4 million jobs lost over ten years. The CBO analysis also found that the wage increase would lift 900,000 Americans out of poverty.
Lawmakers are wary, however, that if Democrats don’t find a way to pass the wage increase in the first relief package, it may never be passed. Jayapal bluntly said she sees no chance of attracting Republican support for the measure, making it imperative to pass it through reconciliation.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), a Biden ally, agreed. “If it cannot be in reconciliation, if that’s the determination that’s made and that stands,” he said, “it’s really difficult to see it passing and getting 60 votes.”
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