On Tuesday, I began to ask Sen. Bernie Sanders a question about his plan for “forcing a vote” on the $15 minimum wage during the Senate’s debate over COVID relief legislation. He took issue with the phrasing.
“Well, you call it forcing a vote,” he said. “There’s going to be a vote.”
Fair enough. He would be calling a vote, then, on the $15 minimum wage. And since the Senate parliamentarian had already determined that increasing the minimum wage wasn’t allowed under the strict reconciliation rules that Democrats are using to pass their $1.9 trillion relief bill, Sanders’ vote would be a procedural one, requiring 60 votes, to waive those rules.
The reason “forcing” seemed apt, though, is that it is a vote that many members of Sanders’ caucus would prefer not to take. Last month, Sanders spared Senate Democrats a $15 minimum wage–related vote when they were debating the budget resolution. This time, they would be on the spot.
The result was clarifying.
Though plenty of Democratic senators have been citing the parliamentarian’s determination as the reason they wouldn’t raise the minimum wage to $15, the support within the caucus for the increase has always been softer than they’ve publicly let on. Only 37 Democrats co-sponsored the Raise the Wage Act when Sanders, the lead sponsor, introduced it, and many of those 12 who didn’t co-sponsor it were cagey when asked whether they supported a $15 minimum wage. It seemed as though, procedural issues aside, the number of Democrats who sincerely wanted to pass a $15 minimum wage was somewhere between 38 and 49.
The vote Friday finally gave us an exact figure: 42 members of the Democrats’ 50-member caucus support a $15 minimum wage, as Sanders’ procedural vote is poised to fall 42 to 58. (As of this writing, more than four hours after the vote began, the vote still hasn’t been closed as Democrats try to work out a vote-counting problem they have on the amendments coming up next.) Those who’ve voted against it include West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Maine Sen. Angus King, Montana Sen. Jon Tester, Delaware Sens. Tom Carper and Chris Coons, and New Hampshire Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan.
Sinema, in particular, seemed to be having an excellent time in casting her vote.
A lot of these senators, mostly hailing from lower-cost-of-living states, had been concerned about the adverse affects on employment from a too sharp hike in the minimum wage. The two Democratic senators in the most danger in 2022—Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock and Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly—both voted yes, though.
Some of the senators voting no, who opposed the policy in isolation, could have supported it if it was embedded within a larger package. Most likely, though, if the parliamentarian had found it was in order to increase the minimum wage through reconciliation, there would’ve been a negotiation on the amount. Joe Manchin, for example, had said that he would support an $11 minimum wage.
The future of the issue is now unsettled. Democrats could still come up with a number they could all live with, like $11, and put a stand-alone bill on the floor daring Republicans to oppose it. The current minimum wage is stuck at $7.25, with no increase enacted into law since 2007, and signs indicate that Republicans are feeling some pressure to budge on the issue. So far, though, what they’re asking for in exchange for a small increase in the minimum wage is the enactment of one of their central immigration policies.
When Sanders was asked Tuesday what vehicle he’d look to next for raising the minimum wage, he wouldn’t say.
“I don’t want to speculate,” he said. “But trust me—trust—this will not be the last vote on the minimum wage.”