WASHINGTON — The battle over increasing the minimum wage is pitting President Joe Biden’s plea for bipartisanship against his relationship with progressives in his party.
Progressives who have tried for years to get a federal wage increase view the $15 an hour proposal in Biden’s $1.9 trillion economic relief package as their best chance for that victory.
But the Biden administration and his congressional allies are signaling that the higher wage is a bargaining chip that could be compromised or even abandoned in order to get Republican votes for a relief package.
Progressives are warning Biden that it would be a political miscalculation to back down from increasing the minimum wage now.
“It would not be a good way for Joe Biden to start off his relationship with the progressive movement by giving up on a core priority that we’ve been driving and that we’ve moved the Democratic Party on,” Our Revolution executive director Joseph Geevarghese told McClatchy.
Republicans and some centrist Democrats want to yank the wage increase from the stimulus proposal that is under negotiation. They say they are willing to consider a higher federal wage, but they do not believe that it belongs in the emergency relief package.
Activists fighting for an increase in the minimum wage see a narrow window for Biden to push one through at the beginning of his term, when there is still the political willpower and appetite to tackle big issues and Democrats have control over both chambers of Congress.
“We’ve been deferring and deterring promises to working people for decades now. And I don’t think that we should have any confidence that the next promise that it will happen later is going to mean anytime soon. Later has meant decades at this point for a living wage,” said Joe Sanberg, a California-based activist and investor.
Democrats are broadly supportive of a minimum wage increase though they have differing views on whether the mechanism for raising it should be the stimulus bill.
A minimum wage increase would not directly affect most union members or their contracts, but labor groups also are advocating for the pay raise, saying it would raise the floor for all workers.
Biden received strong support from labor and liberals in the 2020 election. Network exit polls showed that he won 56% of the vote in union households, and 89% of liberals.
His proposed American Rescue Plan gradually raises the minimum wage, now $7.25 an hour, to $15 an hour by 2025.
“There should be a national minimum wage of $15 an hour. No one working 40 hours a week should live below the poverty line,” Biden said when he announced the package. “If you work for less than $15 an hour and work 40 hours a week, you’re living in poverty.”
But the White House would not commit last week to its inclusion in a brokered recovery package, saying it was a matter that would be decided by Congress.
Jared Bernstein, a member of the White House Council of Economic Advisors, told reporters that Biden believes a wage increase is “essential” for undercompensated workers, but he declined to say whether it would be part of the final package.
Congress is moving ahead with its plans to pass the economic package by mid-March without GOP votes, but Biden is still hoping some Republicans can be persuaded to support it.
One strategy for doing that is limiting who can get $1,400 stimulus checks, something the White House said Friday it would consider.
Another is tinkering with the proposal for a higher minimum wage, which Republican leaders have made clear they will not support.
“It’s a federal mandate to small businesses that are struggling all across the country to double the minimum wage,” said Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., the Senate’s third-ranking Republican.
Centrist Democrats and a group of Republican senators who met with Biden last week at the White House are also reluctant to back the $15 wage in this economic relief package.
An alternative plan offered by the Republicans did not include a higher minimum wage. After the meeting with Biden, Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, told McClatchy that while she supports a higher minimum wage, “it doesn’t belong in the COVID bill.”
The Republicans’ chief argument is that the higher pay will hurt the very interests that the legislation is trying to help, which are small businesses and service industries.
“It would be very difficult for the hospitality industry, which has been particularly harmed,” Collins said.
If Republicans stick together in opposing the minimum wage, it would take a single Democratic defector to scuttle the proposal because of the 50-50 split in the Senate.
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia could be that Democrat. He said he does not support a $15 minimum wage, adding, “I’m supportive of basically having something that’s responsible and reasonable.”
In his state, he said that would mean $11 an hour, which could be adjusted for inflation.
The wage increase is expected to easily win approval in the House, where Democrats have a majority.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office offers both sides of the debate ammunition. CBO estimates that 400,000 jobs would be lost in 2023, and 1.2 million would be lost by 2029 if the wage is increased. But for lower wage workers who keep their jobs, “a higher minimum wage raises their families real income,” the report said.
It would lift many of those families out of poverty, and a study from the University of California, Berkeley Labor Center estimated that a higher wage would significantly reduce costs for federal safety net programs.
“There’s a strong positive effect on lower-wage workers earnings. Strong reduction in poverty,” Ken Jacobs, the center’s chairman, told McClatchy.
Progressives are issuing stark warnings that Democrats will have a difficult time winning next year’s elections if they do not pass the wage increase.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, the new Senate Budget Committee chairman, said in an email to his supporters last week about the $15 minimum wage that Democrats would “get wiped out again during the midterm elections in 2022” if they did not deliver on the election promise.
Sanberg, the California activist, said that if Biden wants to sustain support among working-class voters in the midterm elections he must prioritize a minimum wage increase over his quest for bipartisan support.
“It’s his current political choice to seek out Republican votes,” Sanberg said. “When someone gets their wage raised, I don’t think they’re going to care if a Republican senator voted for it.”