Fight for $15: Wage hike likely blocked from Biden’s COVID relief

In blow to progressives, Senate arbiter says fast-track process to pass signature legislation precludes the wage hike.

Activists appeal for a $15 minimum wage near the Capitol in Washington, DC [File: J Scott Applewhite/The Associated Press]

A provision that would raise the United States minimum wage as part of President Joe Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief legislation has been dealt a likely lethal blow.

Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate parliamentarian and the nonpartisan arbiter of its rules, determined that a process Democrats are taking to fast track the passage of the bill with a simple majority in the chamber precludes including the measure, which would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, well above the $7.25 floor in place since 2009.

The wage increase has long been a legislative goal among US progressives, but its inclusion in Biden’s legislation had garnered criticism from within the party.

The president had campaigned on having a strong response to the pandemic, which he has said is his administration’s top priority. To date, over 28 million people have been infected with the coronavirus in the US, with over 508,000 deaths.

On Thursday, press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden was “disappointed” in MacDonough’s determination.

“[Biden] will work with leaders in Congress to determine the best path forward because no one in this country should work full time and live in poverty,” Psaki said.

The Senate has a long tradition of obeying the parliamentarian’s decisions with few exceptions, a history that is revered by traditionalists like Biden, a 36-year Senate veteran. MacDonough’s decision would also likely give Republicans the grounds to block Democrats’ attempt to pass the bill with a simple majority if they do not drop the provision from the legislation.

Still, some progressives, including Pramila Jayapal, who leads the near 100-member Congressional Progressive Caucus, have said Senate Democrats should still include the wage increase in the relief bill.

Jayapal said on Thursday that the chamber should not be stopped by “the advisory opinion of the parliamentarian and Republican obstructionism”.

Democrats currently control 50 seats in the 100-member chamber, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote, leaving little room for dissent within the party.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Thursday that Democrats “are not going to give up the fight” to raise the minimum wage to $15.

The increase could be introduced as a standalone bill or could be tacked on to future legislation, but finding the 60 votes needed for passage is expected to be a near-insurmountable hurdle.

Meanwhile, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, hailed MacDonough’s decision, saying it shows the special procedure that Democrats are using to protect the relief bill “cannot be used as a vehicle to pass major legislative change – by either party – on a simple majority vote”.

The parliamentarian’s decision came to light the night before Democrats in the House of Representatives are set to push through an initial version of the relief legislation that still includes the minimum wage boost.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said that “House Democrats believe that the minimum wage hike is necessary. Therefore, this provision will remain.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies