Democrats Face Make-Or-Break Moment On Minimum Wage In Next COVID-19 Bill

Other parts of their relief bill would send cash to most households and could reshape the economy for years.
Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faces her first major test in the new Congress in the push to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that is President Joe Biden's top priority.
Speaker of the House Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) faces her first major test in the new Congress in the push to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill that is President Joe Biden's top priority.
Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Democrats are fast approaching a make-or-break moment on establishing a national $15-an-hour minimum wage and providing more COVID-19 relief, with the House expected to push through a bill later this week by a slim margin and the Senate expected to take up the measure shortly thereafter.

Amid all the talk of political “unity,” Democrats face their first real policy test of harmony within their ranks. It remains unclear whether their leaders — both in the House and Senate — can hold their caucuses together to pass a $1.9 trillion bill that includes a minimum wage hike.

A senior Democratic aide said it’s “definitely possible” some Republicans would back the bill, but it’s hard to count on them. A few Republicans could ultimately vote for the measure — or, more likely, wait to see whether Democrats can pass it on their own before joining them in favor of the package. And in the House, with only a five-vote majority, Democrats can’t afford many defections.

A $1.9 trillion bill without a minimum wage increase would already be a tough task for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). A number of politically vulnerable Democrats are looking to at times break from leaders and burnish their credentials as fiscal conservatives. And the overall cost of the legislation may still be too much for those lawmakers, even though Democratic leaders have already clamped down on higher-income households receiving direct relief payments in order to quash a Republican talking point on that issue.

But the potential inclusion of a $15 minimum wage — which could then still be stripped by the Senate parliamentarian because of that chamber’s procedural rules or deleted by Senate Democratic leaders because of insufficient support — makes the bill’s passage even more difficult. The increase would be gradual, starting at $9.50 and reaching $15 in four years.

Still, House Democrats remain hopeful about passage prospects. For the most part, no significant public opposition has surfaced from moderate Democrats, and polls show the public remains supportive of another relief bill. The House’s Democratic leaders are also renowned for getting their members in line, and they have until the end of the week to round up the votes they need.

Service industry workers at a Jan. 26 rally in Washington express support for raising the national minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Service industry workers at a Jan. 26 rally in Washington express support for raising the national minimum wage to $15 an hour.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

The Senate, which Democrats control because Vice President Kamala Harris can break the 50-50 tie between the Democratic and Republican caucuses, presents an even more difficult challenge to the minimum wage proposal. And that could influence the House vote.

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) already have said they oppose including a $15 minimum wage in the COVID-19 package ―signaling that getting a bill including that provision onto President Joe Biden’s desk seems extremely difficult. Manchin met with activists and workers from his state advocating for a wage hike last week, but his opposition remained unchanged. As a result, moderate House Democrats who have also expressed reservations about increasing the wage may not want to go on the record supporting an hourly hike if it’s just going to get stripped from a bill in the Senate or fail on a vote.

House leaders are awaiting word from the Senate parliamentarian whether the fiscal impact of raising the minimum wage is enough for it to be included in a relief bill that could be passed under the budget reconciliation process ― which means it could pass with a simple majority instead of needing 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a leading proponent of the minimum wage increase, said over the weekend that he was “confident” the wage hike would survive the scrutiny by Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough.

On the other hand, were MacDonough to rule that the proposal doesn’t have enough of a budgetary impact to be included in a reconciliation bill, she could make passage of the legislation much easier in the House and Senate. But it would come at the expense of a wage increase for 27 million Americans, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Either way, Democrats are rushing to get a COVID relief bill to Biden’s desk by mid-March, when federal unemployment benefits for more than 11 million workers will start to expire. The bill would continue federal programs for gig workers and the long-term unemployed through August, and it would increase a federal supplement from $300 to $400 per week.

Publicly, congressional staffers have expressed an unusual sense of optimism that the relief package’s elements other than the minimum wage provision should be able to pass without a hitch. Major portions of the bill made it through marathon markups in House committees with unanimous Democratic approval.

And already, some more cautious voices have said they’re in favor of the package. Most notably, Rep. Conor Lamb, a Democrat who represents the swing seat outside Pittsburgh — and has been a rumored contender for the open Pennsylvania Senate seat in 2022 — has been very supportive of it. Lamb told HuffPost that the efforts in this crisis had to be “bigger and stronger” than the relief delivered in 2009 to address the Great Recession.

That said, Pelosi doesn’t have a lot of wiggle room. There’s plenty of political points to be gained for a vulnerable Democrat standing up to his or her party and demanding a more fiscally conservative package. And there’s potential political liability for House Democrats being asked to support a package including a minimum wage increase without knowing whether that provision can even be included in the Senate’s bill.

On top of the uncertainty over the minimum wage, questions surround the ultimate fate of another provision: an expansion of the child tax credit.

The bill would increase the maximum value of the credit to $3,600 from $2,000 and eliminate its earnings requirement. Low-income households would therefore benefit even if they don’t have jobs. The bill also would direct the Internal Revenue Service to distribute the money in advance, on a monthly basis, meaning it would essentially create a child allowance for the vast majority of parents in the U.S.

A child allowance would revolutionize the U.S. government’s relationship with parents. The extra money would slash child poverty, and monthly payments would be vastly more helpful than annual refunds at tax time.

But the bill only expands the credit for one year. Democrats would have to pass another bill to make the changes permanent, which they avoided doing in the relief bill in order to keep the measure’s overall cost under $2 trillion.

Republican leaders are attacking the bill as a giveaway to progressives. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) said it didn’t matter if the bill is overwhelmingly popular.

“You don’t have to be a good pollster in Washington to ask the question, ‘Hey, would you like the federal government to send you a $3,500 check?’ Of course, the answer is going to be yes,’” Scalise said Sunday.

Republicans will be working this week to achieve their own unity and stymie a Democratic talking point — that the bill enjoys bipartisan backing.

To do that, they’ll have to keep all their members in line against legislation with strong public support. It might ultimately be asking too much of the few remaining moderate Republicans in Congress to oppose a bill sending out another round of relief checks, providing $440 billion for state and local governments, $160 billion for vaccine deployment, $130 billion more to help schools reopen, money for health care for laid-off workers — all along with the expanded child tax credit and extended unemployment benefits.

But GOP leaders may be able to hold back their members from voting for the bill until Democrats have put up a majority of their own. So even if some Republicans ultimately support the package and it passes with votes to spare, the fate of the legislation could have been much closer than it seemed.

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