The $15 Minimum Wage Is Officially Dead In Democrats’ COVID-19 Relief Bill

The push to include a $15 minimum wage in the COVID-19 relief bill is officially dead, with an amendment to incorporate the proposal in the final package set to fail on the Senate floor Friday. 

The amendment was put forward by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), one of the biggest champions of the $15 minimum wage in Congress.

“Here is the simple truth, that is in the richest country in the world we can no longer tolerate millions of our workers being unable to feed their families because they are working for starvation wages,” Sanders said on the Senate floor on Friday. “When we look at the economy, people look at the stock market, they look at a lot of indices out there. But at the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves what is going on in the lives of ordinary people and it is not acceptable to me that half our people are living paycheck to paycheck.”

The amendment ultimately died on procedural grounds in the Senate, with Republicans claiming the amendment did not comply with rules around budgetary legislation. 

Seven Democrats ― Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.), who has been vocal in his opposition to the $15 minimum wage; Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.); Chris Coons (Del.); Tom Carper (Del.); Jeanne Shaheen (N.H.); Maggie Hassan (N.H.); and Jon Tester (Mont.) ― as well as one independent, Sen. Angus King (Maine), voted with the Republicans on this procedural matter.

The vote remained open for more than 10 hours on Friday as Democratic senators scrambled to shore up votes for a separate vote on unemployment insurance.

Sanders’ proposal would have given an estimated 27 million workers raises over the next four years and pulled more than a million out of poverty, according to recent estimates from the Congressional Budget Office. 

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, which has not been increased in more than a decade. Sanders’ amendment would also have eliminated the tipped minimum age, which allows employers to pay a lower base wage as long as the workers receive gratuities. The tipped minimum wage is currently $2.13 per hour.

“A country that aspires to be pro-work should not be this anti-worker,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who chairs the Senate Finance Committee said in support of the amendment.

The fight to include a minimum wage increase in the $1.9 trillion emergency relief bill had been doomed for weeks.

Democrats are passing this COVID-19 relief package along party lines through a legislative maneuver called budget reconciliation. Budget reconciliation bills can be passed with a simple majority but have their limitations ― namely, their provisions must have a direct and significant impact on federal spending and revenue. 

The Senate’s chief procedural expert, the parliamentarian, said the minimum wage proposal wouldn’t have a direct enough impact on the federal budget, ruling that the estimated $54 billion increase in the deficit was just “incidental” to the policy. Vice President Kamala Harris, the Senate’s presiding officer, had the power to overrule that determination, but the White House decided to accept the parliamentarian’s position ― and thus the minimum wage increase was struck from the final package.

On Friday, it was Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C) who dealt the final blow to the push for a $15 minimum wage, forcing a vote to rule Sanders’ proposal out of order with Senate rules. 

“I think the parliamentarian was dead wrong,” Sanders said on the Senate floor. “It is an absurd process that we allow an unelected staffer, someone who works for the Senate, not elected by anybody, to make a decision as to whether 30 million Americans get a pay raise or not. I don’t care how the parliamentarian rules ― no parliamentarian should have that power.”

Passing a $15 minimum wage was always going to be an uphill battle. Manchin and Sinema came out against the proposal, and the procedural vote indicates that there might be more, albeit quiet, opposition. Manchin has said he supports a more narrow increase to $11 an hour over the next two years.

Democrats have very limited options to raise the minimum wage in the months ahead. There’s been talk of taxing companies that don’t pay their workers a $15 minimum wage, as well as tax credits for smaller businesses — though that effort has largely been put on the back burner for now.

Meanwhile, Republican Sens. Mitt Romney (Utah) and Tom Cotton (Arkansas) unveiled their conservative counterproposal to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour over a five-year period, tied to a mandate that businesses use E-Verify to crack down on the hiring of undocumented workers. 

If Democrats negotiate with Republicans on the issue, that’s where they’ll be starting.

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