House Democrats voted Thursday to lift the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, delivering on a long-standing liberal priority that has become a rallying cry for 2020 Democratic presidential contenders.
The bill, which passed 231-199, would raise the minimum wage gradually from its current level of $7.25 an hour until reaching $15 an hour in 2025. The legislation was amended earlier this week at the urging of moderate Democrats to provide for a slower six-year phase-in, instead of five years as originally envisioned.
The “Fight for $15” has become a potent political push on the left, but bringing it to fruition on the floor of the House took months of maneuvering as some moderates voiced concerns about the impacts on small businesses or in rural areas where pay scales are lower than in larger metropolitan areas. Ultimately, the slower phase-in pushed by moderate members — along with a proposed study that would measure the impacts of the wage increase partway through its implementation — satisfied the concerns of the large majority of House Democrats.
Although the legislation is not expected to advance in the Republican-run Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he will not take it up, House Democrats celebrated what they described as a major achievement in their fight for U.S. workers.
“This is an historic day,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said on the House floor ahead of the vote, which she said would narrow the gender gap in wages. “Today we wake up for a day of jubilation because of the sense of fairness this legislation engenders. We wake up with a smile on our face, showing the world with all the love in our hearts, and that love in our hearts is about fairness for the American people.”
Republicans were almost uniformly opposed, a stance that was fueled by a Congressional Budget Office report last week that said increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour would lead to 1.3 million lost jobs. The report also said that the change would lift the earnings of 27.3 million workers. The federal minimum wage has not been raised since 2009, but Republicans described the Democratic legislation as a politically motivated jobs-killer designed to undermine economic gains they said had been made under President Trump.
The minimum wage bill is “another baseless attack on President Trump’s successful record,” said Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.). “Just this week House Democrats voted to hold the president’s advisers in contempt, and many voted to impeach the president. Today they are working to undo the economic gains seen under the Trump administration’s leadership and undermine the best economy in my lifetime.”
Rep. Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.), a moderate Blue Dog Coalition leader who played a lead role in negotiating the bill, rejected the GOP criticism while contending that the deliberate approach advocated by moderate Democrats would guard against any negative effects. Murphy and others advocated for an amendment, approved by the House, that would require an independent study once the minimum wage reached $9.50 to allow Congress to monitor the impacts of the law.
“The positive impacts way outweigh any potential negative impacts, but the incremental way in which we’re doing this along with the data-focused approach allows us to address any real harm — if there is harm — as we move along,” Murphy said. “This will be one of the proudest votes I cast,” she said.
Raising the minimum wage was a centerpiece of the Democratic agenda when they took control of the House this year, but Pelosi and other leaders have struggled to focus attention on such bread-and-butter issues important to voters heading into the 2020 presidential and congressional elections. The Democrats’ preferred message has been repeatedly drowned out by other issues, most recently President Trump’s racist attacks on four minority freshmen Democratic women.
Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.), who had been pushing to adopt a regionally adjusted minimum wage, said she was voting for the bill, even though it did not include any regional adjustment or a small-business tax credit she championed.
“We promised the American people a raise, and this is the only vehicle that’s moving. I still stand by my bill — I think my approach is better,” Sewell said. “But at the end of the day, this is a Democratic process and this is the bill that’s moving.”
A last-minute effort by Republicans to amend the legislation to exempt small businesses with fewer than 10 workers or less than $1 million in annual income from the minimum wage increase failed narrowly. Democrats warned that the GOP maneuver was aimed at dividing the Democratic caucus and causing the underlying bill to fail. The underlying bill passed along near party lines, with three Republicans joining Democrats in voting “yes” and six Democrats opposing the legislation.
Passage of the bill was a particularly sweet victory for members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, some of whom have been fighting for it for years.
“I’m a little frustrated we have to extend the date a little bit, but I really believe it needs to get done and I will vote for it and I will celebrate the passage of the first raise of the federal minimum wage in such a long time,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a Progressive Caucus leader who represents Seattle, which recently enacted a $16-an-hour minimum wage.
Polling has found a $15 minimum wage to be broadly popular with the public. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey last year found 60 percent of U.S. adults supported raising the national minimum wage to $15 an hour, while 37 percent were opposed. The candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination uniformly support the change, and some are making it an important focus of their campaigns. In Iowa this week, several candidates rallied with Fight for $15 workers.
As the federal minimum wage has stagnated, states and localities have increasingly acted on their own. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the effective minimum wage has increased in 27 states and the District of Columbia since 2014; 29 states and the District now have a minimum wage that is higher than the federal minimum wage.