Progressives fume as White House backs down on minimum wage increase

President Biden and Senate Democrats drew fire from progressives after opting not to fight a ruling that would strip a $15 minimum wage increase from the Senate’s COVID-19 relief legislation.

To pass the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan with just 50 votes, Democrats in the Senate are using a process called budget reconciliation, which requires the approval of the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough. On Wednesday, MacDonough ruled that the provision increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 by 2025 violated the Senate’s “Byrd rule,” which prohibits “extraneous” provisions from being included in budget legislation passed through reconciliation.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki issued a statement Thursday night saying the president was “disappointed in this outcome” but “respects the parliamentarian’s decision and the Senate’s process.” The White House had already ruled out Vice President Kamala Harris overruling the parliamentarian, a possibility given her role as the presiding officer of the Senate.

Progressives in the House immediately began pushing back.

“I disagree strongly with the Senate Parliamentarian’s advisory ruling on the $15 minimum wage,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, in a statement. “The White House and Senate leadership can and should still include the minimum wage increase in the bill. We simply cannot go back to the Black, Brown, AAPI, Indigenous, poor and working class voters who delivered us the White House and the Senate majority and tell them that an unelected parliamentarian advised us — based on arcane rules — that we could not raise the minimum wage as we promised.”

Rep. Ilhan Omar speaks into a microphone
Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., speaking on Feb. 4 about plans to reintroduce a resolution calling on President Biden to take executive action to cancel federal student loan debt. (Andrew Harnik/AP Photo)

“I’m sorry — an unelected parliamentarian does not get to deprive 32 million Americans the raise they deserve,” said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif. “This is an advisory, not a ruling. VP Harris needs to disregard and rule a $15 minimum wage in order. We were elected to deliver for the people. It’s time we do our job.”

“Abolish the filibuster. Replace the parliamentarian. What’s a Democratic majority if we can’t pass our priority bills? This is unacceptable,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., adding, “Republicans go for their agenda and don’t let anyone stand in their way as they fight for corporations over people. We have to fight hard for the American people and not hide behind a ruling from an unelected parliamentarian. It’s time to lead. Progressives are often told to ‘fall in line.’ It’s time to tell moderates to ‘fall in line.’”

In 2001, Senate Republicans ousted parliamentarian Richard Dove after he ruled against them on a number of measures they wanted to include in legislation cutting taxes. In 2017, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was among the conservatives who encouraged Vice President Mike Pence to overrule the parliamentarian when the GOP was attempting to overturn the Affordable Care Act.

“Under the Budget Act of 1974, which is what governs reconciliation, it is the presiding officer, the vice president of the United States, who rules on what’s permissible on reconciliation and what is not,” Cruz said. “That’s a conversation I’ve been having with a number of my colleagues.”

Polls indicate that the minimum wage is supported by a majority of Americans, with a new Yahoo News/YouGov survey finding 52 percent in favor of raising it to $15 per hour, versus 37 percent in opposition. Recent polling elsewhere has found support for $15 per hour in the low 60s, with a Yahoo Finance/Harris survey earlier this month finding that 83 percent of Americans agreed the current $7.25 per hour wasn’t high enough.

The problem for those urging the White House and Democratic leadership in the Senate to push harder for the $15 minimum wage is that even if it were included in the Senate bill, it seems unlikely that they could garner all 50 Democratic votes necessary for it to pass. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has proposed a smaller minimum wage hike, while Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., has said she doesn’t approve of including the increase in the COVID relief bill.

Sen. Joe Manchin walks through the Capitol wearing a face mask
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., arriving for the third day of Senate impeachment hearings against former President Donald Trump on Feb. 11. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

The White House has said it will attempt to pass the increase through other avenues, but it’s unlikely there is a path to 60 votes in the Senate, as even relatively moderate Republican senators have proposed raising it to just $10.

Democrats could pass legislation with a simple majority of 51 votes if they abolished the legislative filibuster — a rule not present in the Constitution that has historically been used to block civil rights legislation, among other measures — but Manchin is among those who have said they will not change it. And Biden, who served in the Senate for 36 years, has said in the past that he too wants to keep the filibuster.

Other Democrats, however, want the filibuster removed. “The filibuster is killing democracy,” tweeted Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., after the parliamentarian’s ruling.

Progressive organizations including Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement issued a joint statement calling on Senate Democrats to abolish the filibuster, while other groups issued statements pressuring the White House.

“A return to civility and decency in politics isn’t just about process but also policy,” Aimee Allison, president of the group She the People, told Politico. “Women of color call on the Biden-Harris administration to use the political power they now have to make the promise of $15 an hour a reality.”

Meanwhile, Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., have proposed a workaround of the parliamentarian's ruling, proposing a tax increase on corporations that do not pay a minimum wage of $15. On Friday morning, multiple outlets reported that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was planning to include a similar provision in the legislation.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House still planned to include the measure in the legislation for Friday's vote. “House Democrats believe that the minimum-wage hike is necessary,” she said in a statement. “Therefore this provision will remain in the American Rescue Plan on the floor tomorrow. Democrats in the House are determined to pursue every possible path in the Fight for 15."


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