with Tobi Raji

Good Wednesday morning. President Biden thinks things may be back to normal by “next Christmas” and this is the Power Up newsletter. Thanks for waking up with us. 

🚨: “The Department of Housing and Urban Development has for years neglected to enforce its own environmental regulations, resulting in lead poisoning of children in at least one public housing development and potentially jeopardizing residents’ health in thousands of other federally subsidized apartments near contaminated sites, according to an inspector general report obtained by The Washington Post,” our colleague Tracy Jan reports. 

At the White House

THE MINIMUM WAGE TEST: President Biden's road to the White House was paved in part with a pledge to increase the national minimum wage to $15 an hour. At his first official 2020 campaign event, Biden called for the hike in front of crowded union hall in Pittsburgh. 

The majority of Democrats rallied around the idea of including the $15 minimum wage in Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package, before he suggested it might not survive the budget reconciliation process and might need to be a stand-alone measure. 

Uh-oh: And Biden signaled during a CNN town hall last night in Wisconsin he is open to negotiating a longer phase-in for the hike, explaining a lower number like $12 to $13 an hour “could be beneficial while having less potential impact on business owners,” per my colleague Erica Werner.

  • “It's about doing it gradually,” Biden replied without providing specifics. “We're at $7.25 an hour. No one should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty.

The issue has become a flash point as Democrats muscle through a massive coronavirus relief package and it also stands as the first test of liberal strength in the Biden presidency.

President Biden fielded questions at a televised town hall on Feb. 16, where he was asked about vaccines, immigration and domestic terrorism. (Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

As the Democratic presidential nominee and during his short time as president, Biden has deftly navigated a fractured Democratic Party, managing to allay — or at least temporarily quiet — skepticism about his liberal credentials from younger and more progressive Democrats. But the looming battle over the minimum wage threatens to buckle the tenuously unified Democratic coalition. 

Biden's facing off again against Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who is leading the charge as the Senate Budget Committee's new chair, to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2025. 

Sanders has made clear he plans on using the budget reconciliation process to implement the wage hike. And he's been working toward collecting outside opinions to make the case that such a move can be done via reconciliation — a decision that will ultimately be made by the Senate parliamentarian. 

  • A potentially persuasive piece of evidence arrived yesterday: the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued a letter saying that the wage hike “would have a sizable impact on the budget,” Business Insider's Juliana Kaplan reports. 
  • Key:The CBO compared [Sanders's bill] to two different provisions from the Republican-authored 2017 tax act — one that allowed for oil and gas leasing in the Arctic, and another that got rid of penalties for not complying with the individual mandate — and found it impacts more budget functions than either.” 

Other than the Senate parliamentarian, two Democrats still stand in the way: Two moderate Democrats in the Senate — Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) — have indicated that they oppose increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour,” our colleague Erica Werner reports. 

  • Decision time:If the Senate strips out the minimum wage increase and sends the legislation back to the House without it, liberals in the House would face a decision about whether to support the package anyway.” 
  • Quotable: “I hope that we’re going to get a bill back with $15 in it. And I think if we don’t, then, you know, we’re just going to have to make our decisions at that point,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told Erica in an interview. “But I can tell you, it is a top priority for the CPC and, you know, bowing to one or two conservative Democrats seems like a terrible policy idea and a political idea.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was noncommittal Tuesday when asked about whether Biden is amenable to lengthening the period of time over which the minimum wage could be increased in light of Manchin and Sinema's opposition. 

  • Key quote: “We’ll let the process see itself through, and I’m not going to negotiate what he’d be open to and not from the podium,” Psaki said.

Some other Democrats have also expressed hesitations about the wage hike in the coronavirus relief bill. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mt.) has also “indicated he’d prefer to allow some regional variation in the wage,” Roll Call's Shawn Zeller reported.

  • “ … 12 House Democrats are on the record preferring to allow regional differences based on the cost of living. The group, led by Alabama’s Terri A. Sewell, sponsored 2019 legislation to implement their proposal.” 

So far, progressive senators haven't mounted an explicit pressure campaign on Biden to ensure the provision is included in the final bill. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has been tweeting about its importance, though, in a pandemic that's exacerbated income inequality: 

Activists, however, are upping their campaign “encouraging Biden to be more aggressive,” the Associated Press's Will Weissert and Alexandra Jaffe report. 

  • The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said Biden has a ‘mandate’ to ensure the minimum wage increases, noting that minority Americans were ‘the first to go back to jobs, first to get infected, first to get sick, first to die’ during the pandemic.”
  • “We cannot be the last to get relief and the last to get treated and paid properly,” Barber told Weissert and Jaffe.

By the numbers: polling on raising the minimum wage has consistently shown a majority of Americans have favored the hike for several years now. Economists and labor advocates have also rejected the argument that increasing the wage will result in job losses, though the CBO “estimated the move would cost 1.3 million American jobs, a claim long made by conservative economists,” CBS News's Kate Gibson reported last month. 

  • Counter: “That claim of job loss isn't supported by evidence — it's likely an overestimate of negative employment impact. But even if you accept their findings, they still find the benefits far outweigh the costs,” Heidi Shierholz, the Labor Department's chief economist under Barack Obama, told CBS.
  • And that same CBO report showed “hiking the national minimum to $15 an hour by 2025 would lift 1.3 million workers above wages that put them below the poverty line,” per Gibson. 

On the Hill

THE GLOVES ARE OFF: “Former president Trump lashed out at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday for a ‘lack of political insight, wisdom, skill, and personality,’” our colleague Mike DeBonis reports

  • Trump’s statement came after McConnell harshly criticized him for being ‘practically and morally responsible for provoking’ the Capitol attack” even though he voted to acquit Trump in the Senate impeachment trial.
  • McConnell suggested “that the party needed to turn away from Trumpism [and recommended] legal consequences for Trump’s conduct on the day of the riot.”
  • The attack “escalated the growing rift in the party about whether it will be controlled by pro-Trump forces or traditional Republicans.”
  • Why it matters: “The blistering statement is vintage Trump, who frequently lashes out at critics. But it also shows the former president's attempt to remain atop the GOP power structure will mean tearing down every perceived internal obstacle,” Axios’s Lachlan Markay reports.

And he didn't mince words. “Mitch is a dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack, and if Republican Senators are going to stay with him, they will not win again.”

  • But “the most salient line in Trump's statement was his threat to ‘back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First,’” Markay reports.

Outside the Beltway

COLD SNAP SWALLOWS LONE STAR STATE: “Texas residents said the storm — and ensuing partial collapse of the state's power system — sapped what mental reserves they had left after eleven months of a global health crisis,” the Texas Tribune’s Shannon Najmabadi and Marissa Martinez report.

  • The situation. “As the electricity grid struggles to keep pace with record high demand amid a historic cold outbreak, people are turning to unsafe means to heat their homes,” our Post colleagues report.
  • A woman and an 8-year-old girl died from suspected carbon monoxide poisoning [and] three children and their grandmother died in a house fire after using the fireplace to heat their home,” the Houston Chronicle’s Gwendolyn Wu reports.
  • There are more than 300 carbon monoxide poisoning cases in Harris County, Texas. “Many of the cases stem from people using BBQ pits and generators indoors to stay warm.”
  • Cities across the state are under water boil advisories after water main breaks and power outages shut down treatment plants.
  • Officials in Pflugerville warned “water might begin to run out and suggested collecting enough gallons for household members ahead of time,” the Tribune reports.
  • In Texas’s largest cities, homeless shelters and warming stations are experiencing high demand,” as residents seek lifesaving refuge, the Tribune’s Juan Pablo Garnham reports.
  • But it’s a tough choice. “Warming centers are great — but our choice is take our parents to a place full of people where they can get covid, or leave them in their home to freeze,” Shannon Bentle told the Tribune’s Jolie McCullough and Duncan Agnew.
  • The infrastructure failures in Texas are quite literally what happens when you *don’t* pursue a Green New Deal, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) tweeted. 

As temperatures dropped, the demand for energy outstripped the supply.

  • Many faulted the government for not warning them power could be out for days while the state was swept by freezing temperatures,” the Tribune’s Shannon Najmabadi and Marissa Martinez report.
  • Gov. Greg Abbott (R) slammed the state’s electric grid operator, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), for the prolonged power outages, calling for resignations and an investigation.
  • The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) have agreed to open a joint investigation into the power failures that have plagued parts of the country.
  • The problem? “Frozen instruments at natural gas, coal and even nuclear facilities, as well as limited supplies of natural gas,” Bloomberg reports.

From a Bloomberg editor:

From the courts

HOMELAND SECURITY CHAIRMAN AND NAACP SUE TRUMP: “The chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday filed a federal lawsuit accusing Trump, lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and two extremist groups of illegally conspiring to intimidate and block Congress’s certification of the 2020 election,” our colleague Spencer S. Hsu reports

  • Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) alleged that Trump’s and Giuliani’s false claims that the election was stolen fomented a raid that violated the Ku Klux Klan Act, an 1871 law enacted after the Civil War to bar violent interference in Congress’s constitutional duties.”
  • “The lawsuit alleges that Trump, Giuliani, and members of the Oath Keepers and Proud Boys far-right groups sought to harass and impede lawmakers, and temporarily succeeded, forcing Thompson and others to don gas masks and take cover on the House gallery floor before being evacuated.”
  • Thompson told the New York Times “he would not have brought the suit against Trump if the Senate had voted to convict him in last week’s impeachment trial.”

On the heels of his second acquittal, Trump faces mounting legal trouble across the country. 

  • New York prosecutors are investigating his financial dealings,” the New York Times’s Annie Karni reports.
  • New York’s attorney general is pursuing a civil investigation into whether Trump’s company misstated assets to get bank loans and tax benefits.”
  • A Georgia district attorney is examining his election interference effort there.”
  • Meanwhile, Giuliani isn't representing Trump in any current legal matters.

NEW YORK SUES AMAZON: “New York’s attorney general, Letitia James, sued Amazon Tuesday evening, arguing that the company provided inadequate safety protection for workers in New York City during the pandemic and retaliated against employees who raised concerns over the conditions,” the New York Times's Karen Weise reports. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

  • What she's saying: “Amazon’s extreme profits and exponential growth rate came at the expense of the lives, health and safety of its front line workers.”
  • What they're saying: “We don’t believe the attorney general’s filing presents an accurate picture of Amazon’s industry-leading response to the pandemic.”
  • FYI: “Last week, Amazon preemptively sued James in federal court in an attempt to stop her from bringing the charges. The company argued that workplace safety was a matter of federal, not state, law.”

Context: “Amazon faced fierce criticism at the start of the pandemic that it hadn’t done enough to keep workers safe. Its warehouses were quickly overwhelmed with orders from customers who preferred to shop from home rather than risk infection at local stores,” our colleague Jay Greene reports

  • By fall, “nearly 20,000 of its U.S. employees had tested positive, or had been presumed positive, for the coronavirus since the dawn of the pandemic.”

Meanwhile in  Bessemer, Ala., nearly 6,000 employees will vote to determine whether they will be represented by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. 

  • The big picture: “That fight could lead to Amazon’s first unionized warehouse in the United States.”

Viral

SHOT: Chatting with some members before a recent round of golf, [Trump] explained his frequent appearances [at his Bedminster, N.J. club]: ‘That White House is a real dump,’” Golf Magazine reported in 2017. 

CHASER:Biden offered a frank description of what it’s like to live at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. during his CNN town hall Tuesday night, referencing past presidents who have spoken of the building as ‘a little like a gilded cage,’” per the Associated Press's Alexandra Jaffe. 

  • “'I get up in the morning and look at Jill and say, where the hell are we?’ Biden joked, adding that he wasn’t used to household staff waiting on him."
  • “'I find myself extremely self-conscious,' Biden added, saying he is unaccustomed to someone ‘handing me my suitcoat.’"