The youth-led Sunrise Movement on Friday issued a scathing statement warning of severe political, economic, and environmental consequences if the Biden administration and Democratic majority allow the Senate parliamentarian—an unelected official with no constitutional authority—to block key portions of their policy agenda by pointing to an obscure rule that "most Americans do not give a shit about."
"What will happen next if the parliamentarian rules a 100% Clean Energy Standard—another key Biden promise—is in violation of the arbitrary Byrd Rule? Will the president, vice president, and Senate leadership buckle then?" asked Sunrise political director Evan Weber. "The laws of the atmosphere and physics—that are telling us we are in a full-blown climate emergency—are certainly not going to give a shit about the made-up laws of the Senate."
"We need the Biden administration and Senate Democrats to do everything in their power—overrule the parliamentarian, fire them, abolish the filibuster—to ensure that no less than a $15 minimum wage becomes the law of the land."
—Evan Weber, Sunrise Movement
Named after late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd, the rule in question empowers individual senators to object to any provision of a reconciliation bill that they believe would have "merely incidental" effects—rather than a direct impact—on the federal budget.
After hearing arguments for and against the provision, the Senate parliamentarian offers advice to the chamber's presiding officer—in this case Vice President Kamala Harris—on whether the measure qualifies under budget reconciliation, a highly subjective judgement that hinges almost entirely on the official's interpretation of the word "incidental."
Late Thursday, Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough sided with Republican senators who argued that a proposal to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2025 runs afoul of the Byrd Rule and should be removed from the pending $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package—despite recent government analyses showing that the pay raise would have a substantial impact on federal spending and revenue.
But Harris, in her capacity as presiding officer of the Senate, has the constitutional authority to overrule the parliamentarian's advice. Should Harris decide to disregard the parliamentarian in an effort to keep the $15 minimum wage provision in the relief package, 60 votes in the Senate would be required to override the vice president.
Senators who oppose the $15 minimum wage proposal—such as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), two key swing votes—would then be forced to decide whether to accept the popular pay raise or risk tanking the entire $1.9 trillion relief package.
To the dismay of Sunrise and other progressive advocacy groups, the White House has thus far indicated that Harris is not willing to exercise her authority to preserve the wage increase, which Biden campaigned on during the 2020 election. White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese said Friday that "the vice president is not going to weigh in," echoing earlier comments by the press secretary and chief of staff.
"The statements by the Biden administration that they will not overturn the parliamentarian's cruel decision—which Vice President Harris and Senate leadership have the power to do—is deeply troubling," said Weber. "Working people in this country, labor unions, and activists have been putting their jobs and lives on the line, striking, organizing, and fighting tirelessly for a $15 minimum wage and union."
"We are glad to see House leadership commit to keeping the $15 minimum wage in their bill," Weber continued. "Now, we need the Biden administration and Senate Democrats to join them in this fight, which is not over, and do everything in their power—overrule the parliamentarian, fire them, abolish the filibuster—to ensure that no less than a $15 minimum wage becomes the law of the land."
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On Twitter, Weber lamented that the White House appears to be fighting harder to save the collapsing nomination of budget office pick Neera Tanden than to raise the wages of tens of millions of Americans. Unlike Tanden's nomination, Weber argued, there's still a "pathway for $15" through reconciliation, the filibuster-proof process Democrats are using to pass coronavirus relief without the support of obstructionist Republicans.
— Evan Weber (@evanlweber) February 26, 2021
Also pressuring Harris is a women of color-led coalition of dozens of advocacy organizations, which sent a letter (pdf) to the vice president late Thursday urging her to "use the full power of [her] office to bring essential financial relief to all working people in America by ensuring that a $15 federal minimum wage is included in the budget reconciliation process, regardless of the opinion of the parliamentarian."
"As you know, women and people of color were the deciding force in electing both the president and the Senate in the 2020 elections; a $15 minimum wage was one of the top reasons they voted and will determine whether they vote again," the letter reads. "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."
People don’t care about keeping the filibuster.
People don’t care about listening to the parliamentarian.
People care about getting the relief they need. Do what it takes to raise the minimum wage to at least $15. https://t.co/HHnvpYEqHE
— Cori Bush (@CoriBush) February 26, 2021
Saru Jayaraman, president and co-founder of One Fair Wage—a signatory of the new letter—said in a statement Friday that "the passage of a $15 federal minimum wage and elimination of the subminimum wages for tipped workers, workers with disabilities, and youth workers would guarantee a livable wage for all workers for the first time in our country's nearly 250 year history."
"Decency," Jayaraman added, "is Democrats using the political power they've been handed to finally deliver for the hardworking people of this country who have been repeatedly stepped on and disregarded over the last four years and especially during the pandemic."