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Senate rejects Sanders $15 minimum wage hike

Last updated on March 5, 2021 4:39 pm

BY ALEXANDER BOLTON

The Senate on Friday voted to reject a proposal sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) to raise the federal minimum wage to $15. 

Seven Democrats and one Independent who caucuses with Democrats voted against it. The vote has yet to be gaveled closed, though it appeared every senator had cast their vote by 12:15 p.m.

Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Chris Coons (D-Del.) Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Angus King (I-Maine.) voted to sustain a procedural objection — a budget point of order — against the wage increase.

Coons’s vote was especially surprising as he is one of President Biden’s closest allies in the Senate, but he and Carper also represent a business-friendly state.

The Senate voted 58 to 42 against an attempt to waive a procedural objection against adding the wage provision to the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.

The overwhelming vote raises doubts whether Biden will be able to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 at any point in his first term.

Until Friday’s vote, Manchin, an emerging powerbroker in the 50-50 Senate, had been the only Senate Democrat to openly state his opposition to a nationwide $15 wage standard. Manchin instead favors setting it at $11 an hour and indexing it to inflation.

With eight members of the Democratic caucus voting against it on procedural grounds, it’s hard to see Biden getting his priority anytime soon. Instead, he is likely going to have to compromise on raising the federal minimum wage, which has not been increased since 2009, to some amount below $15

Biden reiterated his strong support for it during a conference call with Senate Democrats last week and invited them to keep working on the wage increase.

“The president wants us to move forward right now on COVID relief but he has made clear he supports an increase in the minimum wage 100 percent,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), an outspoken proponent of a $15 minimum wage, told reporters after the call.

Friday’s minimum wage vote came shortly after news broke that centrists Democrats had forced their leaders to accept a significant reduction in weekly unemployment benefits.

Democrats announced Friday morning they were near a deal to set the weekly unemployment benefit at $300 a week instead of the $400 a week favored by Biden and included in the House-passed relief deal.

In a concession to liberals, the emerging unemployment benefits agreement would exempt up to $10,200 in benefits received in 2020 from taxes and extend the boost to federal unemployment benefits to Oct. 4 instead of Aug. 29, the end date set by the House.

Moderate Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also voted for the procedural objection to Sanders’s $15 per hour minimum wage amendment.  

Every other Senate Republican voted the same way.

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Some Democrats expressed uneasiness about Sanders’s proposal to raise tipped wages earned by restaurant workers at a time when many restaurants are struggling to stay open during a drop in business because of the pandemic.

The vote was largely symbolic after the Senate parliamentarian ruled last week that a provision raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 violated the Byrd Rule and could not be included in the relief package that Democrats plan to pass with a simple-majority vote under special budget rules.

Proponents of the $15 per hour wage may take some solace in the fact that Friday’s vote was on waiving a budget point-of-order objection to the amendment rather than a straight up-or-down vote on the amendment itself — leaving Democrats who voted no some wiggle room to vote yes in the future.

Because the parliamentarian ruled the wage increase violated the Byrd Rule, it would have stopped the entire relief package from passing with a simple-majority vote if it were successfully added.

But the procedural objection — which would have required 60 votes to waive — could have been sustained by Republican votes alone in the 50-50 Senate, indicating Democratic centrists are sending a message. 

Sanders vowed after the vote to continue pressing the issue.

“If anybody thinks that we’re giving up on this issue, they are sorely mistaken. If we have to vote on it time and time again, we will and we’re going to succeed,” he said. “The American people understand that we cannot continue to have millions of people working for starvation wages.”

Asked if he was surprised by the number of Democrats who voted against his amendment, Sanders said: “No, we knew exactly what was happening.”

Justice Democrats, a progressive advocacy group, on Friday blasted centrist Democrats over the vote.

“it is unconscionable that Sens. Tester, Manchin, Shaheen, Hassan, King, Sinema, Carper and Coons would tell millions of essential workers earning poverty wages that they are ‘heroes’ but they don’t deserve a $15 minimum wage,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for the group.

“President Biden and Vice President Harris must now present their plan for delivering on their campaign promise of a $15 minimum wage before the midterm election cycle gets underway,” he said. 

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