- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Senate parliamentarian concluded Thursday that a federal minimum wage hike to $15 per hour would run afoul of chamber rules if Democrats include it in their $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

The ruling is a major blow to liberal Democrats, who have insisted that the $15-per-hour level be included in the legislation and immediately demanded that Vice President Kamala Harris overturn the ruling.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer of New York said Democrats were “very disappointed” in the decision.

“We are not going to give up the fight to raise the minimum wage to $15 to help millions of struggling American workers and their families,” Mr. Schumer said. “The American people deserve it, and we are committed to making it a reality.”

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders of Vermont and other Democrats have said they think the wage hike is allowed under the fast-track budget process, known as reconciliation, that they’re using to thwart a possible GOP filibuster.

Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough apparently disagreed.

Several Senate Democrats, including Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden of Oregon, said they’re eyeing a Plan B: hiking taxes on companies that don’t pay their employees at least $15 per hour.

Mr. Sanders said he’s planning to work on an amendment to take away tax deductions from “large, profitable corporations” that don’t pay employees at least $15 an hour and to provide incentives to small businesses to increase their wages.

“Because of the archaic and undemocratic rules of the Senate we are unable to move forward to end starvation wages in this country and raise the income of 32 million struggling Americans,” Mr. Sanders said. “That fight continues.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, said he was “very pleased” by Ms. MacDonough’s ruling.

“This decision reinforces reconciliation cannot be used as a vehicle to pass major legislative change — by either party — on a simple majority vote,” Mr. Graham said. “This decision will, over time, reinforce the traditions of the Senate.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said President Biden is “disappointed” in the outcome but that “he respects the parliamentarian’s decision and the Senate’s process.”

“He will work with leaders in Congress to determine the best path forward because no one in this country should work full time and live in poverty,” Ms. Psaki said.

The White House had repeatedly said that Mr. Biden supports a $15 minimum wage but that they would leave the legislative sausage-making up to Congress.

Democrats had hoped to use the budget process because under Senate rules things done that way can pass on a majority vote. Most other major legislative business can face a filibuster, which generally requires a 60-vote supermajority to clear the chamber.

Liberal Democrats said Ms. Harris, as president of the Senate, could overrule Ms. MacDonough’s ruling.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, called it an “advisory ruling.”

“Let’s be clear: raising the minimum wage is COVID-19 relief,” said Ms. Jayapal, Washington Democrat. “The White House and Senate leadership can and should still include the minimum wage increase in the bill.”

Even before Ms. Psaki’s statement, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain had said overruling the parliamentarian wasn’t in the cards.

“We’re going to honor the rules of the Senate and work within that system to get this bill passed,” Mr. Klain said Wednesday on MSNBC.

House Democrats are hoping to pass their $1.9 trillion bill on Friday. 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Democrats are leaving the $15 minimum wage in the House bill despite the ruling.

“Democrats in the House are determined to pursue every possible path in the Fight For 15,” said Mrs. Pelosi, California Democrat.

House leaders could also try to carve that section out and pass standalone legislation to increase the wage.

But that bill would have no chance of making it through the evenly divided Senate if it’s subject to the 60-vote filibuster threshold.

The Congressional Budget Office had calculated that a $15 minimum wage, when fully phased in by 2025, would sap 1.4 million jobs from the economy, though it would also raise wages for more than 25 million and lift 900,000 above the poverty line.

Ms. MacDonough was playing referee under what’s known as the “Byrd Rule,” a 1980s construct of then-Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat and master of Senate procedures. The rule requires that anything done under the cover of the budget must be central to the country’s fiscal situation.

Extraneous provisions can be struck by the motion of a single senator, and it requires 60 votes to waive the rule — the same threshold as a filibuster.

Debates over what is extraneous can grow heated, and Mr. Sanders and fellow Democrats have been lobbying Ms. MacDonough to make their case.

To bolster his case, Mr. Sanders had the CBO prepare a report that found the wage hike would affect a wide range of government budget functions.

Specifically, the wage increase affected more of the budget than drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or eliminating the Obamacare individual mandate tax penalty. Both of those policies were allowed in Republicans’ 2017 tax cut bill, which was also passed through reconciliation, and Mr. Sanders had argued that should pave the way for the wage hike to be allowed this year.

“It is hard for me to understand how drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was considered to be consistent with the Byrd Rule, while increasing the minimum wage is not,” Mr. Sanders said.

Even without the parliamentarian’s ruling, a $15 wage hike had already been in trouble.

In a Senate divided 50-50, with the GOP seemingly unified against a $15 rate, all Democrats would have to back the plan, with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris putting the policy over the top.

But Sen. Joe Manchin III, West Virginia Democrat, has signaled he is not comfortable with the $15 rate and has floated a hike to $11 instead. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona Democrat, is also not on board the $15 wage, according to liberal activist groups who are now targeting her with a pressure campaign.

Both Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema have indicated they would not support overturning a ruling from Ms. MacDonough.

On the right, meanwhile, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and Mitt Romney this week proposed a $10 minimum wage, which would be tied to the approval of nationwide mandatory use of E-Verify, the government’s currently voluntary system for vetting new hires to make sure they are in the country legally and authorized to work.

In the wake of Thursday’s ruling, liberal activist groups were already demanding Senate Democrats use the so-called “nuclear option” shortcut to change Senate rules and eliminate the legislative filibuster — a defining feature of the upper chamber.

“If Senate Democrats don’t demonstrate courage, structural racism will continue to thwart progress in Congress,” said Kevin Kimble, member of the Just Democracy Coalition. “Today it’s the minimum wage. Tomorrow, the filibuster stands to block legislation on immigration, gun violence prevention, climate justice, voting rights and more.”

Eliminating the filibuster would not solve Democrats’ math problem on the $15 wage hike, given the opposition from Mr. Manchin and Ms. Sinema. But it could pave the way for passage of other items on progressives’ wish list.

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