The Senate parliamentarian ruled Thursday evening that Democrats cannot include a minimum wage hike to $15 in their $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, dealing a major blow to a progressive priority that has also run into some intraparty resistance.
Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate official who was tasked with making the call, deemed that the minimum wage provision runs afoul of the so-called Byrd rule, which governs the types of measures that can be included in bills passed through the budget reconciliation process. The rule, named after the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, prohibits “extraneous” measures unrelated to the budget or ones that would raise the federal deficit beyond a 10-year window.
Democrats, who narrowly control a 50-50 Senate, are working toward passing the COVID-19 rescue package through reconciliation, which enables them to do so without needing any Republican support since bills can advance through a simple majority. With President Joe Biden’s support, Democrats inserted a provision that would raise the federal hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 by 2025. But while the decision dealt them a defeat, it likely makes it easier for the party to pass a sweeping relief bill since at least two senators opposed the wage hike.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders of Vermont had been lobbying MacDonough on keeping the wage hike in the bill and had projected confidence they’d get a favorable ruling. Sanders has rallied behind a $15 minimum hike for years, particularly during his two presidential runs.
“We are deeply disappointed in this decision,” Schumer said in a Thursday statement. “We are not going to give up the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 to help millions of struggling American workers and their families.”
The decision comes a day after Schumer, Sanders and others met with MacDonough on Wednesday to discuss the provision. The White House had previously signaled that it would respect her decision either way – even though the vice president could overrule the ruling with support from 50 senators.
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“President Biden is disappointed in this outcome, as he proposed having the $15 minimum wage as part of the American Rescue Plan,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a Thursday statement. “He respects the parliamentarian’s decision and the Senate’s process. He will work with leaders in Congress to determine the best path forward because no one in this country should work full time and live in poverty. “
With the clarity from the parliamentarian, Democrats will need to find an alternate avenue to fulfill a campaign promise of raising the federal minimum wage for the first time since 2009. Senate Democrats have a standalone bill for a $15 wage hike, but the measure would likely face greater resistance since it would need 60 votes for passage. In that scenario, at least 10 Republicans would need to back it and potentially more if some Democrats defected.
Most Senate Republicans remain vehemently opposed to raising the minimum wage, though two GOP senators have proposed compromise legislation that would raise it to $10 by 2025 and mandate that businesses use the E-verify system to prevent them from hiring immigrants living in the country illegally – likely a nonstarter for most Democrats.
While Democrats pushed hard for the inclusion of minimum wage, there was no guarantee it would survive, particularly in its current form. Even if the parliamentarian green-lit the provision to remain in the bill, the wage hike faced resistance from at least two moderate Democrats: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.
Under reconciliation, bills can pass with a simple majority of 51 senators, meaning Democrats would need all 50 senators on board to pass the COVID-19 bill if no Republicans joined them. Any tie would be broken by Vice President Kamala Harris.
Manchin had floated instead raising the wage to $11, but Sanders and other progressives in the Senate and House had poured cold water on his proposal.
Responding to the news from the parliamentarian, progressive groups reiterated their calls for Senate Democrats to eliminate the filibuster, which would remove the 60-vote threshold to advance most legislation. The calls to end it grew much louder during the 2020 election, though a number of Democrats, including Manchin and Sinema, remain opposed to its elimination.
“We need a $15 minimum wage in this country and we need it now,” Rahna Epting, executive director of MoveOn, said in a statement. “The Senate is broken. Republicans broke it. Now Democrats must fix it. That starts with eliminating the filibuster.”
The House, meanwhile, is scheduled to vote Friday on the coronavirus relief package that will still include the minimum wage hike. In that case, the Senate will need to remove the provision from the bill and eventually send it back to the lower chamber for passage.
Democrats remain determined to pass the $1.9 trillion rescue package before March 14 – the expiration of enhanced federal unemployment benefits.