Politics

$15 minimum wage amendment fails, revealing rift in Democratic caucus

Minimum-wage workers won’t see a raise as part of federal coronavirus relief efforts, as moderate Democrats joined all Republicans to shoot down Senator Bernie Sanders’ amendment to include increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour in the Senate COVID relief package. The 42-58 vote laid out a deep divide within the Democratic caucus on the issue, raising questions on its path forward — but Democratic lawmakers who favor the move say the fight is far from over.

“If any senator believes this is the last time they will cast a vote on whether or not to give a raise to 32 million Americans, they are sorely mistaken,” Sanders said in a statement. “We’re going to keep bringing it up, and we’re going to get it done because it is what the American people demand and need.”

Sanders offered the amendment after Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled that a $15 minimum wage hike cannot be included in the Senate COVID relief package under the budget reconciliation process. In that process, legislation can advance with a simple majority instead of 60 votes, but the legislation has to follow strict budgetary rules.  

“I think the parliamentarian was dead wrong,” said Sanders, speaking on the Senate floor Friday morning. “But more importantly, it is an absurd process that we allow an unelected staffer, somebody who works for the Senate, not elected by anybody, to make a decision as to whether 30 million Americans get a pay raise or not.” 

The amendment had a difficult path to getting adopted after moderate Senate Democrats Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona signaled their opposition to raising the minimum wage to $15. Democratic Senators Jon Tester of Montana, Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Tom Carper and Chris Coons of Delaware, along with Sinema and Manchin, joined Republicans against the motion. Independent Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with Democrats, also voted against the motion. While all senators have voted, the vote has not yet technically closed

Sinema explained in a statement that she supports raising the minimum wage separate from a COVID-relief reconciliation bill.

“Senators in both parties have shown support for raising the federal minimum wage and the Senate should hold an open debate and amendment process on raising the minimum wage, separate from the COVID-focused reconciliation bill,” Sinema said in a statement. “I will keep working with colleagues in both parties to ensure Americans can access good-paying jobs, quality education, and skills training to build more economically secure lives for themselves and their families.”

Sanders’ amendment would have gradually increased the current $7.25 an hour federal minimum to $15 over five years, starting with an increase to $9.50 this year. It would have also raised the tipped minimum wage gradually from its current $2.13 to $14.95 over seven years. It’s similar to the Raise the Wage Act, which Sanders and other Democrats have introduced as a standalone bill.

After the provision was removed from the relief package in the Senate, some progressives called for the parliamentarian to be overruled, but Friday’s vote displayed just how challenging it would have been to pass the measure even if it needed just 50 votes. 

On Friday morning ahead of the vote, Democratic Senator Patty Murray of Washington, who joined Sanders in introducing the amendment, said the pandemic should be a “wakeup call” and that essential workers who have been hailed heroes for their tireless work over the past year deserve more than $7.25 an hour.

While increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour would give roughly 30 million people a pay raise including lifting nearly a million out of poverty, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the move could lead to 1.4 million jobs being cut and add $54 billion to the deficit.

Republicans have seized on the potential job losses and warn of warn of the proposal’s potential harmful impact on small businesses, including the restaurant industry, which has been hard hit by the pandemic. But Sanders has also acknowledged the need to give small businesses additional relief.

Congress has not passed a minimum wage increase since 2007 when it was included as an amendment to a defense spending bill. The amendment gradually raised the minimum wage to its current $7.25 in 2009. The tipped minimum wage has not been raised since 1991.

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