WASHINGTON — A ruling in the Senate on Thursday dealt a severe blow to Democrats' hopes of raising the minimum wage in the Covid-19 relief package, probably dooming the proposal in the legislation that is headed for a vote in Congress.
The parliamentarian, the in-house referee, ruled that the provision was not compliant with rules governing the budget process that Congress is using to pass the bill with simple majorities.
"We are deeply disappointed in this decision," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "We are not going to give up the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 to help millions of struggling American workers and their families. The American people deserve it, and we are committed to making it a reality."
The so-called Byrd rule limits acceptable provisions in the reconciliation process to those that involve taxing and spending. Democrats can still try to pass a wage hike through regular order, but that would require 60 Senate votes, which all but ensures failure because of a lack of Republican support.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, praised the referee's ruling.
"Very pleased the Senate Parliamentarian has ruled that a minimum wage increase is an inappropriate policy change in reconciliation," Graham said in a statement. "This decision reinforces reconciliation cannot be used as a vehicle to pass major legislative change — by either party — on a simple majority vote. This decision will, over time, reinforce the traditions of the Senate."
Democrats, led by Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had made a case for including the provision.
Sanders said he strongly disagreed with the ruling and suggested another way to provide incentives for a wage hike through the budget process.
"In the coming days, I will be working with my colleagues in the Senate to move forward with an amendment to take tax deductions away from large, profitable corporations that don't pay workers at least $15 an hour and to provide small businesses with the incentives they need to raise wages," he said in a statement. "That amendment must be included in this reconciliation bill."
Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said he would consider another way to raise wages.
"I'm looking at a tax penalty for mega-corporations that refuse to pay a living wage," Wyden said in a statement provided by his office.
The House, which isn't constrained by the Senate restrictions, is expected to take up the Covid-19 relief bill Friday. Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said House Democrats "believe that the minimum wage hike is necessary" and added: "Therefore, this provision will remain in the American Rescue Plan on the Floor tomorrow."
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., a leading proponent of the $15-an-hour wage, said before the ruling that it would be unacceptable for Democrats to willingly back off the provision, but she acknowledged that the parliamentarian could rule it to be noncompliant.
"The parliamentarian is essentially a legislative reference," Ocasio-Cortez told reporters. "If something is out of bounds, it's out of bounds, as per the rules."
Senate experts say Vice President Kamala Harris has the authority to ignore the parliamentarian and rule the wage hike to be compliant, but the White House isn't considering that.
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"President Biden is disappointed in this outcome," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, but she added that he "respects the parliamentarian's decision and the Senate's process." She said that he will work with Congress to "determine the best path forward" on a $15 wage but that, in the meantime, he "urges Congress to move quickly to pass the American Rescue Plan."
The parliamentarian's ruling immediately revived calls from some progressive activists for Democrats to abolish the Senate's 60-vote threshold to pass most legislation, which they can do with a majority vote.
Eli Zupnick, a spokesman for the Fix Our Senate coalition, said there is "no reason" for the party not to extend the simple majority process it is using for Covid-19 relief "to increasing the minimum wage, passing HR1 and the Voting Rights Act, and delivering on the many popular promises they made that Sen. McConnell can currently veto with a filibuster."