Democrats tried to squeeze the minimum wage hike into the so-called budget reconciliation process, which allows them to avoid a GOP filibuster and pass their Covid aid bill with 50 Democratic votes. But unless they can find some workaround or alternative solution, Democrats will need 10 Republicans to support it — an unlikely proposition given the yawning chasm between the two parties on the issue.
Although Republicans have released a bill raising the wage to $10 an hour and strengthening usage of the e-Verify immigration system among employers, Democrats have little interest in cutting a deal right now.
“They don’t want a minimum wage,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “The public wants this done and the public wants a lot of things done that [Republicans] are unwilling to do.”
Brown said Democrats have discussed among themselves how they might need to alter legislation to pass the Senate. But at least two Senate Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, opposed a wage hike to $15 as part of the coronavirus bill. And Manchin has said that he would like to see the minimum wage increase closer to $11.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Thursday night that he was “deeply disappointed” by the parliamentarian’s decision and vowed to not give up the fight for a $15 minimum wage. But he did not offer any specific detail about how Democrats plan to make the increase a reality.
Schumer’s caucus has ruled out an attempt to reject the parliamentarian’s decision, a move that would amount to gutting the filibuster by another means. Sinema and Manchin have both said in recent interviews they will not try and overturn the decision.
Some Democrats have discussed trying to attach it to a second stimulus package later this year, reasoning that the budgetary impacts of a change in the wage might work better in a jobs bill passed under reconciliation.
Another option is trying to nudge small businesses to raise their wages using tax breaks, if that passes muster with the parliamentarian.
“I’m not going to say exactly” how the party handles a setback with the parliamentarian, Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the No. 4 Senate Democrat, said before the ruling Thursday night. “I really don’t want to get into negotiating that at the moment.”
As senators left Thursday afternoon to head home for the weekend, the chamber remained in a state of uncertainty over the fate of the minimum wage hike. The House was on the precipice of passing its Covid package, and now senators are scattered around the country returning home.
Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) had argued that the hourly increase should be included in the coronavirus relief package because raising the minimum wage would increase the deficit.
Senate Republicans countered that the provision was extraneous, would lead to job losses and hurt small businesses and predicted that the parliamentarian would strike it.
House Democratic leaders and the White House have been deferential to the Senate’s arcane rules. But so far they are showing no willingness to change their own priorities in the near-term even if the wonky ways of the upper chamber foul things up.
House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal (D-Mass.) vowed on Thursday that the House would vote on an increase “no matter what happens” in parliamentarian’s office.
Raising the federal minimum wage to $15 is a top priority for progressives and labor unions. But the Senate reconciliation process represented the only viable legislative option for a $15 minimum wage to become law without undoing the legislative filibuster in its current form.
“We need to pass a $15 an hour minimum wage,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). “If we can do it through reconciliation, great. If we can’t, then we need to tackle the filibuster issue and then pass minimum wage.”
The Senate could still try to find a workaround, even if the House strikes any minimum wage increase from its bill. The reconciliation process allows for lengthy amendment offerings from senators in both parties.
And the parliamentarian’s ruling may leave Democrats with one remaining, but less appealing, option: working with the GOP. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is part of a group of Senate Republicans proposing a $10 minimum wage, said Thursday that she thought a bipartisan compromise still could be possible in the Senate.
“It’s obvious that we do need an increase in the minimum wage,” she said. “But I don’t really think it should be part of the Covid package. … A better way would be to bring a bill to the floor and see if we can work it out.”
The last time the minimum wage got a standalone vote on the Senate floor, it failed in 2014 as Democrats sought to increase the hourly rate to $10.10. That experience has convinced many Democrats that their best course of action is to work toward winning over 50 of their members using a reconciliation bill, as opposed to engaging in what many see as fruitless negotiations with Republicans.
But Democrats insist that they can find another chance to raise the wage, even if it’s not on the coronavirus relief bill.
“There’s a million angles to it,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.). “Even though there’s some differences about how much, and how fast, what are the exceptions, it’s such a unifier in our caucus. We’ll figure out a way to get it done. I’m pretty confident about that.”