This report was written by Andrew Perez, Walker Bragman, Julia Rock, and Joel Warner.
Senate Democrats’ COVID-19 relief legislation will not include a $15 minimum wage, after eight Democrats joined with Republicans on Friday to prevent Sen. Bernie Sanders from moving to add the provision back to the bill.
President Joe Biden’s “American Rescue Plan,” released on the day of his inauguration, called on Congress to raise the wage in the pandemic aid package.
“Throughout the pandemic, millions of American workers have put their lives on the line to keep their communities and country functioning, including the 40 percent of frontline workers who are people of color,” Biden’s plan stated. “As President Biden has said, let’s not just praise them, let’s pay them.”
Unfortunately, ensuring that frontline workers are paid a living wage hasn’t been so simple.
Because conservative Democrats have refused to eliminate the filibuster, Republicans can block most legislation unless Democrats can find 60 votes. That’s why Senate Democrats are using the convoluted budget reconciliation process to pass Biden’s signature relief bill by a simple majority vote.
But that route allows the Senate parliamentarian to advise on whether certain provisions violate the so-called Byrd Rule, which says that only items pertaining to federal spending issues can be added to budget legislation.
Last week, Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough advised Democrats that she doesn’t believe the minimum wage hike could be included in the legislation, even though the Congressional Budget Office had concluded the provision had budgetary implications.
The advice of the parliamentarian, a nonpartisan advisor who serves at the whim of the party controlling the Senate, is non-binding. House progressives and civil rights activists, in fact, pushed Vice President Kamala Harris to reject MacDonough’s advice.
Instead, Senate Democrats removed the wage measure from the legislation. On Friday, Sanders tried to add it back with an amendment. The amendment, which needed 60 votes to advance, was never going to move forward, since opposition from all 50 Senate Republicans was all but guaranteed.
But Sanders still wanted to put Senators on record on their position on the $15 minimum wage — and now we know exactly where all of them stand.
Here is what we’ve learned:
1) Eight Democratic senators refused to even consider a $15 minimum wage.
Here are the eight Democratic senators who voted with the Republicans to block Sanders’ attempt to add the minimum wage provision into the COVID-19 relief legislation: Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Jon Tester of Montana, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, Tom Carper and Chris Coons of Delaware, and Angus King of Maine (an independent who caucuses with Democrats).
Manchin has made clear that he doesn’t support a $15 minimum wage, and would prefer to see a lower figure for the wage, such as $11 an hour.
Other senators have made process arguments against including the wage hike. Tester’s office told constituents he didn’t support the idea of overruling the parliamentarian.
Sinema, who has argued the “minimum wage provision is not appropriate for the reconciliation process,” looked downright giddy — in an apparent theatrical nod to her predecessor, John McCain — as she gave a thumbs-down nay vote against the minimum wage measure, even though a $15 minimum wage would boost the paychecks of 839,000 workers in her state.
Sinema also brought a large chocolate cake to the Senate floor, meant for Senate staff who were up late last night as the 628-page bill was read aloud at one Republican’s request. The result was a perfect — or rather perfectly gross — let-them-eat-cake moment.
But it’s important to note that these Democrats weren’t just voting down Sanders’ minimum wage amendment. They voted to help the GOP make sure the Senate was not even allowed to consider the amendment. They refused to allow a discussion on a measure that had been framed two months ago as a key element of Biden’s American Rescue Plan, a provision that would improve the pay of 32 million U.S. workers.
They preferred to simply quash the issue outright — and the Biden administration did nothing at all to stop them.
2) Democrats may have had the votes to keep the minimum wage increase in their original COVID bill.
There was another way Democrats could have moved forward with the $15 minimum wage in their COVID-19 relief bill: Vice President Harris, as presiding Chair of the Senate, could have ruled against the parliamentarian’s advice and kept the provision in the legislation. While the Senate could vote to overturn the ruling, it would take 60 of the Senate’s 100 members to do so.
“What would probably happen is a senator would appeal the ruling of the chair and then the full Senate would vote on whether to sustain the appeal,” the memo stated. “The Chair’s ruling would be upheld as long as there are not 60 affirmative votes to sustain the appeal. So, if the majority could hold enough members together (less than 60 affirmative votes to sustain the appeal), the ruling that runs counter to the Parliamentarian’s advice would be upheld.”
In other words, if at least 41 Democrats refused to overturn Harris’ ruling, the minimum wage provision would have remained in the bill.
Today, 42 Democrats voted in support of a $15 minimum wage. That is one more than would have been necessary for the alternative approach to work.
It’s fair to wonder whether some of these Democrats would have wimped out in a situation where their votes weren’t simply a symbolic gesture, as they were today. Colorado freshman John Hickenlooper, for example, was a late, surprise yes vote on the minimum wage amendment on Friday.
But these 42 Senators voted in favor of considering a $15 minimum wage even after the Biden administration signaled again and again that passing such legislation was less of a priority than, say, trying to get Neera Tanden, a scandal-plagued, union-busting, rage-tweeting apparatchik, confirmed as the head of the White House budget office.
Imagine if the Biden administration had fought for the $15 minimum wage as hard as it fought for Tanden’s doomed confirmation. Instead, Harris wasn’t even in the Senate chair today during the vote on Sanders’ amendment.
Based on what we saw today, more than enough Democrats very well could have supported her if she had kept the $15 minimum wage in the COVID-19 legislation, and the measure could be on its way to becoming the law of the land.
3) A $15 minimum wage likely won’t happen anytime soon.
Overruling the parliamentarian and keeping the measure in Biden’s first COVID relief package — a truly must-pass bill that likely won’t win support from any Republicans — was probably the best opportunity Democrats had to secure a $15 minimum wage, unless a handful of progressives in the House now threaten to vote no unless Senate Democrats reconsider.
Minimum wage legislation could still happen during this Congress. But if so, Democrats will probably negotiate with Republicans and conservative members of their own party to enact a much smaller wage increase.
We’re already seeing what happens when conservative Democrats like Manchin negotiate with Republicans on hugely important issues like extending federal unemployment aid: Chaos ensues and benefits potentially get stripped to the bone.
So if we see any movement on minimum wage in the coming months, expect the legislation to be loaded with toxic measures designed to peel off progressives, since no one will need their votes.
4) Democrats must eliminate the filibuster.
The budget reconciliation process is unnecessarily complicated and won’t be a solution for securing many top-priority Democratic agenda items, even those with budgetary implications. And as we’ve now seen, it doesn’t even seem to help Democrats pass popular measures like a $15 minimum wage.
There is only one solution left: Democrats have to eliminate the filibuster. It’s not just about scoring legislative wins that the party will need if they want a hope to preserve their congressional majorities in 2022 and beyond. It’s about doing what is right for millions of struggling Americans, without letting obstructionist Republicans — and a few faithless Democrats — stand in the way.
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