Democrats are also laying the groundwork to pass their stimulus package through “reconciliation," a Senate procedure that allows legislation to pass with a narrow majority, avoiding a filibuster. However, that process is supposed to be used for matters related to spending, taxes and the budget, meaning there’s a chance the wage hike could be struck as inadmissible under Senate rules.
Even if Biden can overcome the parliamentary obstacle, it is not clear the $15-an-hour wage measure would win the unanimous support of 50 Democratic senators to pass it through reconciliation. Only 38 have so far co-sponsored legislation to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, although virtually all Democratic senators have said they support some increase in the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
“There’s unanimity among Democrats that we have to raise the minimum wage. The question is how high and how fast," said Jim Kessler, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and now executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist think tank.
The fight over the minimum wage proposal threatens to expose divisions in the Democratic caucus and could prove an early test of Biden’s ability to force Congress to follow his agenda. It could also prove an enormous help to millions of workers across the country, especially those in retail and service sector industries whose job security has been tenuous because of coronavirus pandemic shutdowns.
The federal minimum wage is worth about 17 percent less than it was in 2009, when it was last raised, according to the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank. Raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2024 would amount to a raise for approximately 28 million workers, the group said in 2019.
Biden campaigned for president on a $15-an-hour minimum wage platform, as did the two Georgia Democrats who gave the party their Senate majority with victories in January.
“No one in America should work 40 hours a week making below the poverty line. Fifteen dollars gets people above the poverty line,” Biden said at the White House last week.
However, 12 Senate Democrats — including centrist Sens. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) and Christopher A. Coons (Del.), a close Biden ally — have not yet signed on to co-sponsor the Raise the Wage Act, which would phase in the $15-an-hour minimum wage over four years.
At least 11 of these 12 centrist Democrats have in the past called for more modest increases in the minimum wage. Manchin and Coons, as well as Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.), in prior years backed plans to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) said in 2016 that she supports a minimum wage of $12 an hour.
Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.) also said he supported a $15-an-hour minimum wage during his Senate campaign, as has Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.). But neither has signed on to the Raise the Wage Act. Hickenlooper’s office said in a statement it is looking for a way to enact the $15-per-hour minimum wage.
“I have supported raising the minimum wage to $15 for years. It’s obvious that we need to do more to support hard-working Americans," Carper told The Washington Post in a statement. But, Carper’s statement added: “In this moment, we also want to be mindful of the small businesses across our country that have been hit particularly hard this past year during an unprecedented pandemic.” Carper’s office said it is “open to looking at different ways to get to $15.”
Sarah Feldman, a spokeswoman for Tester, said that the senator from Montana supports raising the minimum wage and believes Biden’s plan is a “blueprint that Congress will consider on a bipartisan basis." Feldman declined to comment on whether Tester supports raising the wage to $15 an hour or as part of the current coronavirus legislation.
Some Democrats remain hopeful that an increase to the minimum wage could be wrapped into a larger piece of legislation at some point during Biden’s presidency, if not during the first coronavirus relief package.
Meanwhile, Republican opposition to the proposal has grown louder. GOP lawmakers such as Rep. Kevin Brady (Tex.), the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, have panned the effort as unrelated to the economic emergency caused by the coronavirus. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, chairman of the influential Business Roundtable, said this month that he supports a boost to the minimum wage, but not to $15 an hour.
Moderate Republicans have balked at the idea as well.
“Increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour — does [Biden] really think it should be part of this covid package?" Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said. “Because if he really does, I’d like to have a conversation with him."
Democrats could try to force through the change on their own, without Republican votes. But such an effort would also face significant hurdles.
Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.), chairman of the House Budget Committee, told CNN on Monday that it would probably be a “stretch” to try to pass a minimum-wage hike through reconciliation.
Other lawmakers are more bullish. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who drafted the Raise the Wage Act, told reporters on Tuesday that the minimum wage hike is “absolutely consistent with the rules of reconciliation.” Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Calif.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said Thursday the measure is “firmly” within the bounds of reconciliation. She argued it would save taxpayers billions of dollars by lowering spending on government programs for the working poor.
And Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the second-ranking Senate Democrat, appeared to suggest to reporters Tuesday that Democrats may want to change Senate procedural rules to pass the measure through reconciliation.
“In the past, the Republicans have changed some of the rules relative to reconciliation to accommodate their legislative efforts,” Durbin said, stressing that the process was still in its early days.
Pressed on Tuesday about the measure’s long odds, Sanders downplayed the extent of Democratic opposition to the $15-an-hour minimum wage hike.
“People do not co-sponsor legislation for a number of reasons. … Do I think we have 50 votes plus 1 to pass a $15-an-hour minimum wage? I absolutely believe that we do,” Sanders said. He also noted Republicans used budget reconciliation to pass their $1.5 trillion tax cut and to authorize drilling in Alaska’s Arctic refuge.
Sanders and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) have also proposed a tax on corporations whose workers are not paid $15 an hour. This would amount to a backdoor way to try to force companies to raise the minimum wage should the direct change to the minimum wage be ruled against the rules of reconciliation. Centrist Democrats are likely to balk at this effort at well.
The fate of the debate has enormous consequences for millions of workers and businesses. Carrie Schweitzer, 47, said she and her 25-year-old disabled son have to receive food stamps and government health insurance despite working full-time jobs. Schweitzer’s son works full time at Taco Bell, and she is a waitress at a diner in the Philadelphia area.
When she started as a waitress in 1985, Schweitzer said, she earned $2.35 an hour plus tips. Now she earns $2.83 an hour plus tips. The Raise the Wage Act would increase the minimum tipped wage to $15 an hour as well.
“That’s only a 50 cent increase over my entire life. Imagine trying to live off the same amount of money I was making in 1985,” she said. “Nobody should have to live in such an unstable life, not knowing how they’ll pay their bills.”
Biden is taking steps to lift worker pay without Congress. Last week, he signed an executive action that will start a process to require federal contractors to pay their workers paid family leave and wages of at least $15 an hour. The White House said in a statement that it aims to be able to implement that order within the first 100 days of Biden’s administration.
Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.