With the Senate poised to vote on a coronavirus relief bill stripped of an overwhelmingly popular provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025, progressive House Democrats will soon face a choice: Reluctantly swallow an aid package lacking a much-needed pay increase for some 30 million workers, or use their significant leverage to fight for changes.
On Friday—ahead of a final vote on the Senate package that's expected to come this weekend—eight members of the Senate Democratic caucus joined all 50 Republicans in blocking Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) attempt to reattach a $15 minimum wage provision to the $1.9 trillion relief legislation over the advice of the unelected Senate parliamentarian, who opined last week that the measure runs afoul of budget reconciliation rules.
"They should wield their power. Make the bill better, for the substance and the politics."
Despite warnings of the "truly dangerous" precedent that would be set if Democrats allow a handful of so-called moderates to tank provisions with broad party support, Sanders and other outspoken Senate backers of the $15 minimum wage push have not said they would be willing to vote against a relief package that doesn't include the pay raise, which is strongly backed by major labor unions and grassroots advocacy groups.
"Democrats who give up on a $15 minimum wage could easily end up with a jobs package that is too small and too late," Joe Dinkin, campaigns director with the Working Families Party, cautioned in a blog post earlier this week, arguing Democrats must "go big or go home."
"Democrats as a whole will pay the electoral price if they fail," Dinkin argued. "The costs will not be simply borne by a few moderates who buck the Democrats' popular agenda items."
Once the Covid-19 relief bill returns to the House—which passed an aid package containing the $15 minimum wage proposal last month—Democratic lawmakers must decide whether to simply pass the Senate version as is or attempt to reverse the damage inflicted by the upper chamber. As of late Friday afternoon, conservative Senate Democrats and Republican lawmakers were also pushing for cuts to the relief bill's unemployment benefits.
Outside progressives are urging House Democrats, particularly members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), to use their numbers to push for changes to the legislation, arguing that a failure to fight for the popular pay increase would leave low-wage workers without a long-overdue raise and potentially imperil Democrats' chances in the 2022 midterms.
"The failure to enact those agenda items will hurt Democrats up and down the ballot, in at least two ways," Dinkin wrote. "First, it would leave Democrats with a thin affirmative record of success to run on. And second, without serious governmental action, the economy as a whole will be much weaker, which favors the party out of power, who can run on 'change.'"
In a series of tweets earlier this week, progressive activist Ady Barkan implored progressives to "wield their power" to "make the bill better, for the substance and the politics."
"If Manchin can threaten to withhold his vote," said Barkan, "so can Elizabeth [Warren], Bernie [Sanders], and the Squad+."
The relief bill is a must-pass for all Democrats.
If Manchin can threaten to withhold his vote, so can Elizabeth, Bernie, and the Squad+
They should wield their power.
Make the bill better, for the substance and the politics.
— Ady Barkan (@AdyBarkan) March 3, 2021
The Daily Poster's David Sirota, who served as a speechwriter for Sanders' 2020 presidential campaign, argued Thursday that congressional progressives must "make clear no bill will pass" unless the $15 minimum wage provision is included. With narrow majorities in the House and Senate, Democratic leaders would be forced to take the demands of progressives seriously should they decide to act as a bloc, Sirota contended.
"Yes, the Covid relief bill must pass. It includes desperately needed help for Americans who are struggling," Sirota wrote. "Precisely because the bill is so desperately needed and a must-pass initiative, there is absolutely no reason to believe it would permanently die. If a Covid relief bill with no minimum wage is voted down in the House, lawmakers can immediately go back and revise the legislation and bring it right back up."
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"For those who rightly demand a serious minimum wage increase," Sirota continued, "this is the way to have a real shot at making it happen right now."
Prediction: Tweets, press releases, speeches & MSNBC appearances will never shame President Manchin and the Republicans into getting rid of the filibuster or doing anything else.
The only thing that will change things is ACTUALLY WIELDING POWER. https://t.co/ORvG4RbjfM
— David Sirota (@davidsirota) March 5, 2021
Saikat Chakrabarti, former chief of staff for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), echoed Barkan and Sirota in a series of tweets on Friday, pointing to both the minimum wage provision and Senate Democrats' move to further restrict eligibility for direct relief payments at the behest of a small faction of conservatives in the caucus.
"I still can't get over why $15 minimum wage isn't in the bill and why we are reducing the checks. We are literally negotiating with ourselves. Both of these things are hugely popular in West Virginia and Arizona but somehow we don't have leverage to negotiate?" Chakrabarti wrote, noting the home states of Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).
"A $15 minimum wage was already a compromise. Now some Democrats are blocking it... We have the House, Senate, and White House. Blocking more help for people is unjustifiable."
—Rep. Cori Bush
"Everyone's afraid Manchin will 'tank the bill,'" Chakrabarti noted. "Then threaten to put him in that position and explain to his voters why he's blocking Covid relief because it also includes a policy that is very popular with his voters. He won't do it. He will cave."
While a few House progressives have individually fumed at the Senate's decision to remove the $15 minimum wage provision from the relief package at the behest of the unelected parliamentarian, the CPC leadership has not yet indicated any willingness launch an organized effort to reverse the change when the legislation returns to the House.
"A $15 minimum wage was already a compromise. Now some Democrats are blocking it," Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), a freshman CPC member, tweeted Thursday. "$1,400 survival checks was already a compromise. Now some Democrats have taken them away from 17 million people. We have the House, Senate, and White House. Blocking more help for people is unjustifiable."
Speaking to Politico's Sarah Ferris last week, Ocasio-Cortez floated the possibility of a progressive revolt in the case of a move by Senate Democrats to strip the $15 minimum wage from the relief package on their own, without a ruling from the parliamentarian.
"There's a scenario, where if our party is voluntarily trying to strip this provision, where we take a stand against it," said Ocasio-Cortez.
But grassroots advocacy groups have argued that by refusing to use their power to overrule the parliamentarian—a Senate staffer with no constitutional authority—Democrats in Congress and in the White House are effectively killing the minimum wage provision themselves.
"As president of the Senate, Vice President Harris has the constitutional power to disregard the recommendation of the Senate parliamentarian and include this provision in the Covid relief legislation," a women of color-led coalition of dozens of progressive organizations wrote in a letter to Biden and Harris last week.
"The vast bipartisan majority of Americans support this policy," the letter continues. "President Biden simply must rise up for the communities who turned out in record numbers to elect him and support the vice president in taking this action on behalf of his administration."
In an appearance on CNN Thursday, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.)—the CPC whip—stressed that Democrats must continue to fight for the $15 minimum wage proposal because "that's what we have a mandate for."
"Things don't survive if you don't fight for them," Omar said of Biden's doubts that the minimum wage increase would make it through reconciliation. "That's why we're here, is to fight for them to survive, because it's tied to the survival of the people that we represent. They, economically, are struggling and we have a moral obligation to do everything that we can to make sure that we can alleviate their struggles."