Take a quick scan at the discourse surrounding Democrats’ desire to increase the minimum wage to $15 in Biden’s recovery plan, and you’ll read much about the procedural obstacles they face in trying to do so.
The main procedural hurdle is that a minimum wage increase may not be allowed under the filibuster-free process, called budget reconciliation, that they’re using to pass Biden’s COVID relief package with 50 votes. That determination would be made by the Senate parliamentarian. There is, then, a secondary procedural question about whether Democrats, and tiebreaker Vice President Kamala Harris, would have the willpower to bypass a negative determination by the parliamentarian and keep the $15 minimum wage in the package. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has said that he’s “working hard” with Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, who manages the reconciliation process, to see if there’s a way to include the increase in the bill. And if they can’t convince the parliamentarian, progressives both inside and outside government are trying to stiffen Democrats’ spines about pressing ahead anyway.
As a sicko whose love for Senate procedural questions is surpassed only by that for second-degree Senate procedural questions, I declare this is good stuff. But there is a bigger problem for advocates of a $15 minimum wage that these rules discussions obscure: Democrats, on the policy itself, do not have 50 votes for a national $15 minimum wage.
We know this. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, the most conservative Democrat, gave a flat “No” when asked earlier this month whether he supported a $15 minimum wage. He said that $11 an hour would be right for his state. His defection alone would leave Democrats with, at best, 49 votes for a $15 minimum wage.
There’s reason to doubt that a $15 minimum wage has anywhere near 49 votes, too. My repeated inquiries over the last two weeks to other Senate Democrats on the margin—Arizona Sens. Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema and Montana Sen. Jon Tester—about whether they supported a $15 minimum wage went unanswered.* When Sanders introduced the relevant text, the Raise the Wage Act of 2021, in January, he touted 37 Democratic co-sponsors. Unless they had some logistical reason for missing the co-sponsorship sign-up sheet, that’s a good sign that 12 have problems.
Some, like Delaware Sen. Tom Carper, are willing to acknowledge their issues. “I have supported raising the minimum wage to $15 for years. It’s obvious that we need to do more to support hard-working Americans,” Carper’s office told the Washington Post in a late January statement. “In this moment, we also want to be mindful of the small businesses across our country that have been hit particularly hard this past year during an unprecedented pandemic.” When Republicans tried to split Democrats in last week’s “vote-a-rama” by forcing a messaging vote on the appropriateness of enacting a $15 minimum wage during a pandemic, Sanders had to pull some procedural jiujitsu to avoid a having a roll-call vote on the matter. Because it would’ve shown splits.
Those keeping their silence, meanwhile, may just prefer for the parliamentarian to do the dirty work of nixing the idea.
If Sanders and the “room full of lawyers” he’s put together can successfully make the case that a minimum wage increase is allowed under reconciliation, that will put some of these holdouts on the hot seat. From there, they could either negotiate a smaller minimum wage increase, perhaps with some carve-outs by types of workers, regions, or states—or just rely on Manchin to stick to his announced position and absorb all of the blame for waiting until another time, and another piece of legislation, to tackle the issue.
The procedural issues are real, but they are not the central impediment to passing a national $15 minimum wage. It’s a cover story for those who are wedged uncomfortably between businesses and their base. The bottom line is that Senate Democratic support for a $15 national minimum wage is soft.
Correction, Feb. 11, 2021: This piece originally misspelled Jon Tester’s first name.