WASHINGTON (AP) – The Democratic push to raise the federal minimum wage to $ 15 an hour has emerged as an early flashpoint in the fight for a $ 1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief plan, testing President Joe Biden’s ability to bridge partisan divisions in Washington as he pursues his first major legislative victory.
Biden called for an hourly minimum wage of $ 15 during his campaign and followed up by associating it with a measure that, among other things, calls for $ 1,400 and $ 130 billion in stimulus checks to help schools to reopen. Biden argues that anyone who has a full-time job should not live in poverty, echoing progressives in the Democratic Party who fully agree with the effort.
“With the economic divide, I mean, I want to see a minimum wage of $ 15. It should actually be $ 20, ”said Representative Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich.
Some Republicans favor exploring a raise, but are uncomfortable with $ 15 an hour. They warn that such an increase could lead to job losses in an economy that has nearly 10 million fewer jobs than before the start of the pandemic. Moderates such as Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska and Representative Tom Reed from New York are urging Biden to separate the minimum wage hike from the COVID-19 talks and treat it separately.
“The more you throw in that bucket of COVID relief that is not really related to the crisis, the more you risk the credibility with the American people that you are truly sincere about the crisis,” Reed said. Including the increase in wages, said Murkowski, “politically complicates an initiative that we should all be working together to address.”
Resistance from the moderates has left Democrats with a tough choice: wait and build bipartisan support for a raise or move forward with little to no GOP support, potentially as part of a package that can pass the Senate with the decisive vote of Vice President Kamala Harris. Democratic leaders appear to be heading towards the latter option, with no guarantee of success. While the salary increase may overcome procedural challenges, the move will require the support of all Senate Democrats 50-50, which could be a tall order.
Leading the charge is Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Who this week unveiled a $ 15 wage bill with the support of 37 Senate Democrats. His bill would gradually increase the salary to $ 15 over a five-year period. The federal minimum is $ 7.25 and has not been increased since 2009.
Sanders, the new chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said it was fine with him if Republicans weren’t ready to “join us.” He said the government needed to put money into the economy to make sure “people don’t work with poverty wages.”
Democrats are moving toward using a tool that allows certain budget-related items to bypass Senate obstruction – a hurdle requiring 60 votes – and move to a simple majority. Sanders is convinced that an increase in the minimum wage meets the permissible criteria for what Washington jargon calls budget reconciliation, although the Senate parliamentarian has the final say on what qualifies.
“As you will recall, my fellow Republicans used reconciliation to give almost $ 2 trillion in tax breaks to the rich and big business amid massive income inequalities. They used reconciliation to try to d ‘Repeal the Affordable Care Act and deprive 32 million people of the health care they had. They used reconciliation to allow drilling in the arctic wilderness, “Sanders said.” You know what ? I think we can use reconciliation to protect the needs of working families.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., said the Senate will start taking the first steps as early as next week to push through the COVID-19 relief bill as part of the reconciliation process budgetary. The goal would be be passage by March.
The latest sign that a $ 15 minimum wage is popular with voters came in November, when more than 60% of conservative-leaning Florida voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that will raise the minimum wage. from $ 8.56 per hour to $ 15 per hour. by 2026.
The House passed a law to gradually increase the minimum wage in the last Congress, but it came to nothing in the GOP-controlled Senate. Opponents argue that a sharp increase in the minimum wage would lead many employers to reduce the number of workers they have on their payroll.
A 2019 Congressional Budget Office study predicted that an increase to $ 15 an hour would increase the wages of 17 million Americans. 10 million more workers earning more than $ 15 an hour would also see a boost. However, around 1.3 million workers would lose their jobs.
“There is no doubt that increasing the minimum wage, particularly to $ 15, will bankrupt some small businesses and cost many low-wage workers their jobs,” said Neil Bradley, director of policy at the United States Chamber of Commerce. .
Bradley said there should be a separate minimum wage debate, and although the US Chamber of Commerce opposes $ 15 an hour, “we are open to a reasonable increase in the minimum wage and that should. be a topic of discussion. But, you know, including that in the COVID package just puts it in jeopardy. “
Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, said raising the minimum wage would benefit many who have worked on the front lines of the pandemic. This is why she supports its inclusion in the COVID-19 relief program.
“They were called essential, but they all think they were treated as consumables or sacrifices because they didn’t earn enough to be able to put food on the table and ensure their safety and that of their families.” , said Henry. .
Henry says nursing home workers, janitors, security guards and home health workers are among the union’s 2 million members.
“The real way to appreciate this job is to increase the minimum wage to $ 15,” she said.
Most states also have minimum wage laws. Employees are generally entitled to the higher of the two minimum wages. Currently, 29 states and Washington, DC, have minimum wages above the federal minimum wage of $ 7.25 an hour.