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House Democratic push to raise minimum wage opens rift over amount of hike

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) takes a selfie Jan. 4 amid the record number of female lawmakers in the 116th Congress on Capitol Hill. House Democrats are weighing a national minimum-wage bill that some centrist members of their caucus are holding out on. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)

LEESBURG, Va. — House Democrats, who repeatedly promised “bigger paychecks” as they campaigned for the majority last year, have found their efforts to raise the federal minimum wage for the first time since 2007 stalled due to an internal rift over the amount of the hike.

Minimum-wage increases have been a core campaign plank for Democrats going back decades, and a sizable majority of the party’s House caucus has coalesced around a bill that would raise it from the current $7.25 per hour to $15 by 2024.

But there is not universal agreement. The $15-an-hour legislation remains a handful of votes short of the 218 it needs to pass the House, and a small group of centrist members — many representing rural areas where both wages and living costs are low — are pushing an alternative bill that would adjust the federal minimum wage region by region to account for those differences.

At the House Democrats’ policy retreat held here this week, liberal members pushed back strongly against watering down the $15-an-hour bill, known as the Raise the Wage Act. At one session Thursday, according to attendees, panelists lambasted the alternative bill — arguing that it would exacerbate existing racial and gender disparities — and some members are urging leaders to steamroll the opposition.

The attendees spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss the private talks.

“These are serious colleagues seriously trying to figure out what the best policy is. But the more I’ve studied the issue, the more I feel . . . it’s as bad a policy idea as I can think of,” said Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.), the vice chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, which passed the Raise the Wage Act last month. “You’re basically consigning poor parts of the country to permanent poverty. What would come next? Why not have regional Social Security benefits?”

That sentiment is shared by top labor leaders, who also attended the retreat Thursday and pushed for the uniform $15-per-hour rate in a presentation to lawmakers. Beforehand, they told reporters that they are firmly opposed to any effort to split up the federal minimum wage.

“We don’t think leaving anybody behind in a regional difference makes any sense,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union. “We are united in pushing a $15 minimum wage to the House floor, getting it voted and moving to the Senate, and then challenging the Senate to vote against people being able to work out of poverty.”

There is little immediate likelihood that a major increase will be signed into law as long as Republicans, who argue that a higher minimum wage would reduce employment, remain in control of the Senate and the White House. But for Democrats who are now in the House majority for the first time in eight years, a hike is an obvious item on their legislative checklist — one that headlined their last successful national campaign to retake the majority in 2006 — and it would set the stage for future action if Democrats do well in the 2020 elections.

It could be months before the impasse is broken. Speaking to reporters Friday, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) acknowledged an internal divide on the issue and avoided giving a firm timeline for a minimum-wage vote.

“There are discussions, and there are concerns, but we are very, very committed — and every Democrat’s very, very committed — to an increase in the minimum wage,” he said.

Those seeking an alternative to the Raise the Wage Act have embraced legislation led by Rep. Terri A. Sewell (D-Ala.) that would assign one of five wage tiers to each U.S. Census-designated metropolitan statistical area according to federal price data. That system, its bill’s backers argue, would actually increase the minimum wage higher than $15 in high-cost areas by 2024 — though low-cost areas could see a wage floor as low as $11.50, and could wait into the 2030s before seeing a $15 minimum wage.

“My approach is just an acknowledgment that where you live, the cost of living may be different, “ Sewell said Thursday. “I am obviously willing to sit down at the table and talk about it, because we’re all committed to increasing the minimum wage.”

Sewell’s bill has the support of 12 members, while the Raise the Wage Act has backing from 205. (Some support both.) The holdouts have leverage to force changes to the more widely supported bill, but liberal lawmakers have so far resisted making any changes and have instead focused on trying to cajole moderates into joining the Raise the Wage Act.

“I do think that there’s a lot of potential for them to move,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. She said concerns about the bill were “not unreasonable,” focusing on the impact a rapid minimum-wage hike would have on small employers.

“But what is unreasonable,” she added, “is to not have one job that pays you enough to put food on the table and a roof over your head. I mean, that just doesn’t make sense for the dignity of work but also for the principles and the values of the Democratic Party being a party of working people.”

The debate has also become imbued with fraught issues of race, class and gender. At the retreat panel Thursday, according to two attendees, AFL-CIO chief economist William E. Spriggs argued that a tiered system would continue decades of systemic discrimination by keeping wages lower in poor minority areas.

“The disproportionate effect on black people and women is overwhelming,” Levin said, recounting the presentation.

But Sewell, who is African American, pushed back on that argument — noting that a rash minimum-wage hike could force layoffs with similarly disproportionate effects.

“The last hired are often the first fired when a business must make difficult decisions to keep their doors open,” she said in a statement. “I know many of those who fall into that category, especially in my district, are minorities, particularly black women.”

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