Democrats in Congress renewed their push to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 per hour on Tuesday, with leaders from both the House and Senate announcing they would introduce bills this week.
The idea of a $15 wage floor from coast to coast has never had more momentum, or more political viability. Democrats have taken control of both chambers of Congress and the White House for the first time in eight years. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has already called on lawmakers to pass a $15 law, which has been the rallying cry of the Fight for $15 campaign by low-wage workers.
But Democrats still face major hurdles in their effort to more than double the federal minimum wage ― and not just from Republicans. The party still has not garnered all the support for a $15 minimum wage that it would need within its own caucus, as some moderate Democrats continue to resist an aggressive increase.
It shouldn’t be too hard to gain enough support to pass the bill in the House, although Democrats hold a slimmer majority in the chamber than they did when the Raise the Wage Act passed in 2019. Of the six Democrats — all from swing districts — who voted against that bill, only Rep. Kurt Schrader (Ore.) remains in Congress today. Four others lost reelection to Republican challengers, and New York Rep. Anthony Brindisi’s race against Republican Claudia Tenney still remains too close to call. With a smaller majority, Democrats can only afford to lose three votes and still pass legislation.
All but three House Republicans voted against raising the minimum wage at the time, and then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked a vote on the bill in the upper chamber.
We must use reconciliation to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)
But Democrats have the barest of majorities in the Senate, where Vice President Kamala Harris would break a 50-50 tie, and getting to 60 votes seems nearly impossible. Republicans have repeatedly balked at the proposal to raise the minimum wage, citing the potential for job losses. Most business lobbies have opposed an increase for years, leading to the longest stretch ever without a raise to the federal wage floor.
“If the federal government mandates a universal $15 minimum wage, many low-income Americans will lose their current jobs and find fewer job opportunities in the future,” Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) said in a statement after Biden supported raising the minimum wage in a COVID-19 relief proposal unveiled before his inauguration.
Unable to clear the 60-vote threshold in the Senate, Democrats likely would have to blow up the filibuster or use procedural maneuvers to have any hope of sending a bill to Biden’s desk.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the new Budget Committee chairman, advocated for the latter strategy. He said there was a moral imperative for Congress to pass a minimum wage hike for the first time since 2007.
“There ain’t nobody in America … who can survive on $7.25 an hour,” Sanders said. “You can’t make it on nine bucks. You can’t make it on 12 bucks an hour. … The minimum wage must be a living wage enabling people to live with dignity.”
Yet not all Senate Democrats are signed on. There’s a close eye on those like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who has become something of an avatar for the centrist politician and who could break from his party on the issue.
In 2019, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour would increase the pay of 17 million people, but also potentially cost 1.3 million jobs — though the study noted that there was “significant uncertainty” in that estimate.
The “net benefit to the country and citizens is substantial,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said at the time, citing additional estimates in the CBO report that the increased wage would lift 1.3 million Americans out of poverty. “The job loss number was a range ... there’s a lot of evidence now that it doesn’t cost any jobs in places that have already raised the wage.”
Without Republicans on board, Democrats may need to push the bill through a legislative maneuver called budget reconciliation. It only requires the support of a simple majority, but has limitations under Senate rules. Reconciliation bills must have a budgetary impact that’s not just “merely incidental” to the policy. It’s not at all clear that increasing the minimum wage would impact federal spending or revenue in that way, and even supporters like Yarmuth are skeptical.
Sanders isn’t humoring those limitations, however. He said his office has spoken with the CBO recently and that the last report on the legislation was too narrow in scope to accurately reflect the budgetary impact of increasing the minimum wage.
“Please remember that if the Republicans could use reconciliation to pass trillions of dollars in tax breaks for wealthy and large corporations, if the Republicans can use reconciliation process to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and if the Republicans could use reconciliation to try and repeal the Affordable Care Act ... then we can and we must use reconciliation to protect the working families of this country,” he said. “We must use reconciliation to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.”
For now, Democrats don’t have a clear strategy on how to pass this bill at all. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.), the sponsor of the House bill, said Tuesday that they would push the minimum wage increase as a separate measure on the House floor, whereas Sanders implied he would fight to include the minimum wage hike as part of a broader push for additional COVID-19 relief.
The federal minimum wage of $7.25 prevails in the 21 states that don’t already mandate a higher one, many of which are clustered in the South. Congress passing even a gradual raise to $15 would impact many more states, since only a handful are already on a path toward that benchmark. Florida became the eighth state to pass a $15 law when voters approved a ballot initiative in November.
The bill the House passed in 2019 would increase the minimum wage to $15 over the course of six years, then tie it to an inflation index. The staged increase is meant to assuage hesitant business groups, but there are other elements of the bill that could prove just as contentious.
Democrats insist on phasing out what’s known as the “tip credit,” a feature that allows businesses like restaurants to pay a lower minimum wage to tipped workers and let gratuities make up the difference. Local efforts to abolish the tipped minimum wage have met fierce resistance from employers and even many workers in cities like Washington, D.C. The National Restaurant Association has strongly opposed the federal effort.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said Democrats will stand firm on that demand, as well as on one to end sub-minimum wage for workers with disabilities.
“We won’t accept carveouts, and we won’t accept leaving anyone behind,” Murray said.