POLITICS

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema Says $15 Minimum Wage Doesn't Belong In COVID-19 Relief Bill

The Arizona lawmaker is the second Democratic senator to oppose the proposal, likely killing the push in Congress.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) has come out as the second Democratic senator against raising the minimum wage to $15 in Congress’ emergency COVID-19 package, killing hopes of giving workers a major pay raise — at least for now.

Sinema said she did not think raising the minimum wage belonged in the $1.9 trillion short-term relief bill in an interview with Politico.

“What’s important is whether or not it’s directly related to short-term Covid relief. And if it’s not, then I am not going to support it in this legislation,” Sinema said. “The minimum wage provision is not appropriate for the reconciliation process. It is not a budget item. And it shouldn’t be in there.”

Sinema joins Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) in her opposition to the proposal. Manchin, who is among the most moderate Senate Democrats, said he did not support a $15 minimum wage. He did open the door to a smaller increase in the minimum wage from its current $7.25, and said that the rate should account for inflation.

“I’m supportive of an increase that’s responsible and reasonable, and in my state that’s $11,” Manchin told congressional reporters last week.

Sinema’s objection to the $15 minimum wage appears to be procedural for now. Democrats will likely have to use a maneuver known as budget reconciliation for their COVID-19 relief bill in order to bypass Republican opposition and pass their proposal with only a simple majority. Normally, legislation requires 60 votes to get past the Senate’s filibuster rule.

That means all 50 Democrats must be in agreement with the final bill, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaking vote. Without Sinema and Manchin, Democrats don’t have the votes.

Sinema’s issue: Senate rules dictate any legislation passed through budget reconciliation must have a direct impact on spending and revenues, and it’s not entirely agreed upon that increasing the federal minimum wage does. Sinema says she doesn’t believe the budgetary impact is the direct intention of the policy.

Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) says a minimum wage increase doesn't belong in the COVID-19 bill. 
Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) says a minimum wage increase doesn't belong in the COVID-19 bill. 

A Congressional Budget Office report this week found that raising the minimum wage to $15 would add $54 billion to the deficit over the next 10 years. The impact on the budget is nuanced; the way the CBO projected it, higher wages means more revenue from payroll taxes, and less spending on government programs like food stamps, but would also lead to higher costs for unemployment insurance and government health care spending because of potential job losses.

That is a significant impact on the federal budget, but in order to be in accordance with Senate rules, Democrats have to successfully argue that these budget impacts are the direct intention of raising the wage and that they’re not just a mandate on private business. The policy’s biggest advocates, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), maintain that this is the intention. 

“Bernie believes we should raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour and, as the chairman of the Budget Committee, he believes it can pass through reconciliation and we turn to people like Bill Dauster, who also believes that,” a Senate aide familiar with budget discussions told HuffPost this week. Dauster, the Budget Committee’s newly hired and well-respected counsel, has publicly argued that raising the minimum wage passes muster under Senate rules.

Manchin and Sinema are standing at odds with their own party leadership. This week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the $15 minimum wage would be included in the House’s COVID-19 relief bill that will be voted on the floor. House Democrats have previously passed the Raise the Wage Act, which would phase in a $15 minimum wage over several years. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) is behind the proposal — as is President Joe Biden.

Biden press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters this week that the White House still supported raising the minimum wage in this bill, but would ultimately defer to the Senate parliamentarian, who oversees the reconciliation rules.

Biden issued an executive order in the first week of February that took the first step toward increasing the minimum wage for federal workers and contractors to $15 an hour. 

“No one in America should work 40 hours a week making below the poverty line — $15 gets people above the poverty line,” Biden said in late January. 

Sinema’s comments about reconciliation, paired with Manchin’s opposition to the policy, show just how much of an uphill battle raising the minimum wage will be.

Business groups and Republicans have rejected a $15 minimum wage, arguing small businesses would flounder under the policy — especially during the pandemic. 

Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) said raising the minimum wage would “put more obstacles in the way of young workers trying to grab the first rung of the economic ladder.”

“I will always fight against these job-killing measures and champion policies that uplift our workers,” Scott, who sits on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a tweet.

With Sinema ruling out reconciliation as a path forward, the $15 minimum wage will live and die by the Senate’s filibuster rule. And without 10 Republicans on board, the policy appears dead upon arrival.