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Democrats clash over a $15 minimum wage in the Covid relief package

House Democrats are moving forward with a wage hike to $15 an hour in their bill. But some lawmakers have concerns as the party heads for a confrontation.
Image: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders during a break in a Democratic primary debate in Manchester
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders during a break in a Democratic primary debate in Manchester, N.H., on Feb. 7, 2020.Timothy A. Clary / AFP - Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Democrats are confronting a growing intraparty dispute over whether the Covid-19 relief bill they are crafting should include a $15-an-hour federal minimum wage, a top progressive priority for years.

Two disagreements are brewing between Democrats: first, a procedural dispute over whether Senate rules even allow them to include it in the coronavirus relief bill. And second, a policy division over whether a nationwide wage floor of $15 an hour is too high.

The Democratic-controlled House Education and Labor Committee approved a Covid-19 relief bill early Wednesday that includes a wage hike from $7.25 an hour to $15, slowly over four years.

The move puts the chamber on course for a clash with the Democratic-led Senate, where limitations of the reconciliation process being used for the Covid-19 bill could force its removal. And even if the move complied with the rules, Senate Democrats appear to lack the votes for it.

Some moderate House Democrats worry that it would be a strategic mistake to keep it in the bill, especially given the chances of its being removed in the Senate. They have privately expressed concerns that it may slow down the package and highlight party divisions, said a source familiar with the internal debate.

"There are serious questions about the possibility of minimum wage prolonging the reconciliation process if it is found not to comply with the Byrd rule," said a senior Democratic aide associated with the moderate wing of the party, who requested anonymity to discuss private conversations. "It could prolong the process, and it could undercut Democrats' message of saying that we are moving as fast as possible on relief."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Thursday that the House will send the Senate a reconciliation bill that includes a $15 wage, adding that "we're very proud of that."

'Some concerns about it'

If the wage hike is deemed ineligible for the bill in the Senate, Democrats would have to choose between changing the rules or abandoning the effort.

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., told reporters that he supports a minimum wage hike, but he warned that "you can't put it in a reconciliation bill if it doesn't have 50 votes, plus a potential tiebreaker."

"There may be other members even on the Democratic side who have some concerns about it," he said.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who could be a crucial swing vote, has said he opposes a wage hike to $15 an hour. But he said he will defer to the Senate parliamentarian on procedure.

"I'm supportive of, basically, having something that's responsible and reasonable," Manchin told reporters, arguing that in West Virginia that would be $11 an hour, pegged to inflation.

Biden's campaign promises

A report Monday by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that a $15 wage would bring almost 1 million people out of poverty in the next four years and boost cumulative pay by $509 billion for workers who get raises. But it would also raise the debt by $54 billion and cost 1.4 million jobs.

President Joe Biden, who campaigned on a $15 wage and included it in his $1.9 trillion relief plan, told CBS News over the weekend that he didn't think the wage hike would "survive" because of Senate rules, and he instead floated a "separate negotiation" for a wage hike up to $15.

But Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is pushing to keep it in the package.

"Let's be clear. We are never going to get 10 Republicans to increase the minimum wage through 'regular order.' The only way to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour now is to pass it with 51 votes through budget reconciliation," Sanders said in a statement.

The issue has highlighted a tension that traces back to the Democratic presidential primary season: Biden won on a message of unifying disparate factions and defeated Sanders, who advocated for a more aggressive approach to lifting workers out of poverty and blasted the current $7.25 hourly minimum as a "starvation wage."

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Sanders has argued that a hike in the minimum wage can be raised under reconciliation. In practice, that may require all 50 Democratic senators to overrule the parliamentarian, which would be unusual.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Thursday that he is "working very closely" with Sanders to make sure the wage hike "survives" Byrd rule challenges in the chamber.

Some were disappointed after Biden said it might be removed.

"I was deeply disappointed that it appears that the $15-an-hour minimum wage isn't part of that, which I think it absolutely must," Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is running for the Senate, said Monday on MSNBC. "To me, that's absolutely critical."