Ocasio-Cortez, Progressives Challenge Biden on Minimum Wage Hike

The Senate scramble over raising the federal minimum wage is presenting the first major test of the uneasy alliance between the Democratic Party’s vocal progressive wing and President Joe Biden just 37 days into his administration.

After the Senate parliamentarian ruled that putting a stepped increase in the wage to $15 an hour in Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan didn’t comply with Senate budget rules, progressives in Congress and allied outside groups are mounting a campaign to get the White House to support either changing or ignoring the chamber’s procedures to push the legislation through.

“Really our options right now, at least our immediate options on this specific issue, is to do something about this parliamentary obstacle or abolish the filibuster,” New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said Friday.

Ocasio-Cortez, Progressives Challenge Biden on Minimum Wage Hike

Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives in the House, which is set to pass the minimum wage hike in its version of the stimulus Friday, contend that public opinion is on their side and there will be a political cost for dropping the wage increase because of arcane congressional traditions. But the administration and Congress face a tight timetable to decide on their next move. Democrats were aiming to pass a broader bill, which also includes $1,400 payments to many Americans, by the time the existing extension of supplemental jobless benefits expires March 14.

Democrats pushing the minimum wage provision say the rest of Biden’s agenda, including infrastructure investments, immigration reform and measures to combat climate change, is at stake. Representative Pramila Jayapal, head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said this is a moment that’s “not just about minimum wage -- it’s all the promises Democrats made.”

“We made a promise to raise the minimum wage,” Jayapal said Friday. “We now have to deliver on that promise to 27 million Americans who are not going to be much convinced when we go back in two years and say, sorry the unelected parliamentarian told us we couldn’t raise the minimum wage.”

‘Powerful Move’

The Senate is split 50-50, and Vice President Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote technically gives Democrats the majority.

Democrats have one shot every fiscal year to pass a bill with a simple majority -- and only Democratic votes -- using the budget reconciliation process. But Senate rules give Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough the authority to decide if individual provisions are sufficiently fiscal in nature, and on Thursday she said the minimum wage measure shouldn’t be included.

One option is for Harris to overrule the parliamentarian’s guidance and proceed with the bill including the $15 minimum wage. A coalition of more than 20 progressives groups sent a letter to Biden and Harris Thursday asking her to do just that.

“This single, powerful move will begin to reset the economic system so that millions of low-wage workers — disproportionately of women of color and communities of color — will no longer be treated as second-class citizens,” the groups wrote in the letter.

But White House officials have said that Harris isn’t considering taking this step. Biden, who was a senator from Delaware for 36 years, has also been reluctant to pushing for changes to Senate rules and traditions. In addition, it’s not clear that all Democrats would go along.

Trying to move a $15 an hour minimum wage hike separately would run into the Senate’s filibuster rule. That requires 60 votes to consider most legislation, which means bills passed by the Democratic-led House and supported by the administration can be held up by the Republican minority.

‘Jim Crow Filibuster’

Some Democrats have cast the filibuster as a relic of segregationist lawmakers. Former President Barack Obama made that connection last year when he said Democrats shouldn’t let their agenda be derailed by the filibuster. Other progressives, including California Representative Barbara Lee, made the same point after the parliamentarian’s minimum wage ruling.

The Sunrise Movement, a group focused on climate policy, issued a joint statement with four groups, including the Justice Democrats, an organization allied with Ocasio-Cortez, said the Senate should operate on a simple majority vote.

“Instead of using reconciliation again and putting other key progressive priorities at the mercy of the parliamentarian, Democrats should bring President Biden’s popular policies—like a $15 minimum wage—straight to the Senate floor under regular order,” the groups wrote in the letter. “If Republicans choose to block them, Democrats must abolish the filibuster to pass them.”

Even as outside groups apply pressure, Ocasio-Cortez said the Biden administration is doing a good job of bringing progressives into the conversation. She said she has spoken with White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who she described as “very responsive” to left-leaning lawmakers.

“I do feel responsiveness from the White House and I think that that’s also been part of the good faith negotiations that we have,” Ocasio-Cortez said Friday. “Progressives are not being iced out of these negotiations.”

Wage Work-Around

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the progressive independent who is chair of the Budget Committee, proposed an amendment to the virus-relief bill that would take tax deductions away from large corporations that don’t pay workers at least $15 an hour. That would provide incentives to pay workers a higher wage, and the fiscal nature of the policy would be more likely to pass parliamentarian muster. Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden also backed using the tax code.

A senior Democratic aide said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is considering whether to add an amendment to the stimulus that would penalize large corporations that don’t pay workers at least a $15 hourly wage.

Yet even if Democrats change Senate rules or amend the virus-relief bill to work around those rules, they would still have the challenge of keeping their party united. Two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have said they don’t support raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Those two senators, along with several other moderate Democrats, will continue to have enormous sway over everything Democrats try to pass through a 50-50 Senate.

“The fact that we have two people in this entire country that are holding back a complete transformation in working people’s lives, the same people who have held our country together throughout this pandemic, is wrong,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

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