“We’re negotiating a minimum wage proposal which we would ultimately take to our group of 20 and see how they would react to it and go from there,” Romney said, referring to a bipartisan group of 20 senators who are hoping to find ways to make the Senate function better.
The Utah senator declined to share more details about the proposal, including its timeline. A spokesperson for Sinema did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“I think it’s $11,” Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said when asked about the measure.
Democrats had hoped to increase the minimum wage to $15 per hour across the board over the next four years through the American Rescue Plan — the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief measure — but hit a major roadblock in the Senate. Democrats pushed their first major piece of legislation through the chamber using a limited budgetary procedure that allowed them to pass it with only a simple majority and thus without the support of a single Republican. But the Senate’s parliamentarian, the body’s chief rules expert, said the minimum wage increase could not be included in a budget bill so it was cut from the legislation.
A $15 minimum wage doesn’t even have full support among Senate Democrats, including Sinema and Manchin. Manchin has repeatedly said he would favor something closer to $11 per hour phased in over two years. Other Democrats, such as Sen. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, have expressed concerns about how a $15 minimum wage would affect the restaurant industry.
Democrats have brainstormed other ways to encourage businesses to raise the minimum wage on their own, such as a scheme of taxes and credits for big and small businesses, but none has gained traction.
A handful of Senate Democrats are meeting Wednesday to negotiate a position on the minimum wage among themselves before formally working with Republicans. Among those in this working group are Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.) and Manchin. A previous meeting of the group yielded no progress.
Republicans offered their counterproposal on minimum wage in early March. The counterproposal, which Romney worked on with Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, would raise the wage to $10 an hour over a five-year period, and tie it to a mandate that businesses use E-Verify — a way to crack down on the hiring of undocumented workers. It would leave the tipped minimum wage, which currently allows employers to pay a lower base wage as long as workers earn gratuities, untouched.
Key Democrats ― such as Murray, who chairs the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee ― panned the low wages and immigration provisions in Republicans’ proposal. But Democrats need Republican votes to pass any measure on the topic.
“We’ve pretty much come to the meeting of the minds among ourselves, meaning Sen. Sinema and myself, but there are many other people who want to be part of that discussion,” Romney added on Wednesday.
Republicans have supported a minimum wage higher than $10 before. In 2017, Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) backed a $10.10 minimum wage paired with business tax cuts.
The federal minimum wage, which sits at $7.25, has not been raised in more than a decade. The tipped minimum wage is $2.13 an hour.