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Biden indicates he’s open to negotiation on $15 minimum wage

Comments come as attention turns to passing $1.9 trillion relief bill on Capitol Hill.

President Biden participates in a CNN town hall event in Milwaukee on Tuesday. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
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President Biden indicated Tuesday that he’s open to negotiation on his proposal for a $15 minimum wage, a centerpiece of his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill that has emerged as a flash point as congressional Democrats push the legislation forward.

Biden suggested that he could be open to a longer phase-in than the current plan of five years in Democrats’ legislation. He also argued that phasing gradually up to $15 could be beneficial while having less potential effect on business owners.

He made the comments in response to a small-business owner at a town hall event hosted by CNN in Milwaukee on Tuesday night.

“No one should work 40 hours a week and live in poverty,” Biden said. “But it’s totally legitimate for small-business owners to be concerned about how that changes.”

The federal minimum wage is now $7.25 an hour. Raising it to $15 an hour has been a longtime goal of liberal lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who are determined to keep it in Biden’s coronavirus relief legislation, despite opposition from some key moderate Democrats in the Senate.

Biden has previously suggested that the minimum-wage increase might not make it into the final version of the coronavirus relief bill.

“Let’s say you said you’re going to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour between now and the year 2025 to $12 an hour, to $13 an hour — you’d double someone’s pay and the impact on business would be absolutely de minimis, and it would grow the GDP,” Biden said.

“I do support a $15 minimum wage,” he said, adding that he thinks the weight of evidence shows that a $15 minimum wage would help workers without much adverse effect on businesses. “But that’s a debatable issue,” he said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki later clarified that Biden was not suggesting that $12 or $13 would be the ultimate target for the minimum wage, but instead was describing how it would progress gradually before ending up at $15 an hour in 2025.

A recent report by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office said the Democrats’ proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 would cost 1.4 million jobs and increase the deficit by $54 billion over 10 years.

But it also estimated that the policy would lift 900,000 people out of poverty and raise incomes for 17 million people.

Biden’s comments may add to the debate about the minimum wage at a moment when congressional Democrats are renewing their focus on passing the overall relief bill. They face a mid-March deadline, when enhanced unemployment benefits will expire if Congress doesn’t act in time.

With former president Donald Trump’s impeachment trial out of the way in the Senate, Democrats are preparing to push the legislation through a few final procedural hoops before an expected floor vote next week in the House. From there, the legislation would go to the Senate.

In addition to the minimum wage increase, Biden’s relief plan includes a new round of $1,400 stimulus checks, as well as hundreds of billions of dollars for schools, city and state governments, coronavirus testing, and vaccine manufacture and distribution.

The Senate on Feb. 5, voted to approve a budget bill that paves the way for passage of President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. (Video: The Washington Post)

The proposal would increase emergency federal unemployment benefits from $300 to $400 a week and extend them into the fall. The benefits are set to expire March 14.

“We can’t spend too much. Now’s the time we should be spending. Now’s the time to go big,” Biden said Tuesday night of the bill.

“Between six months and a year-and-a-half we can come back. We can come roaring back,” he said.

Despite divisions within the House Democratic caucus, Democrats have largely unified behind the legislation. Nine House committees passed their individual portions of the measure last week, fighting back GOP attempts to alter it with dozens of amendments targeting everything from abortion to the minimum wage to the Keystone XL pipeline.

Democrats defeated all the GOP amendments save for one, a relatively minor measure in the Agriculture Committee aimed at compensating farmers affected by derecho storms last year.

Republicans repeatedly said they were frustrated that their views weren’t being considered as Democrats pushed the legislation forward without GOP support. Democrats defended their approach, saying they need to act quickly to inject more money into the health-care system and stabilize the economy with millions still out of work.

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Biden’s outreach to Republicans on the plan has been limited, despite his campaign promises of unity and bipartisanship. He met with a group of 10 Senate Republicans in early February, but ultimately described their $618 billion counterproposal as inadequate to meet the nation’s needs, and indicated that he was prepared to move forward without them.

Biden and other members of his administration have insisted that his relief proposal has bipartisan support from Americans — a point Biden reiterated on Tuesday night — even if not on Capitol Hill.

Congressional Democrats are advancing the legislation under special budgetary rules that allow it to pass the Senate with a simple majority, instead of the 60 votes normally required, meaning GOP votes are not necessary.

House passage of the legislation looks likely, even though some more moderate members of the caucus had hoped to move first on a stand-alone bill with funding for vaccines. However, bigger fights await in the Senate, where — absent GOP support — Democrats can’t afford to lose a single vote, given the chamber’s 50-50 divide between Republicans and Democrats. Democrats have the majority because Vice President Harris can break ties.

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. 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.

“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.), chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said 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.”

Congress has already devoted about $4 trillion to fighting the coronavirus pandemic, including $900 billion in December. Many Republicans question the need for $2 trillion in additional spending and are angry that Biden is eschewing their support on his first major legislative initiative.

In a letter to Senate leaders on Monday, the top Republicans on multiple Senate committees with jurisdiction over elements of the legislation slammed what they called a “completely partisan process” and asked to be involved.