Senate rejects Bernie Sanders proposal for $15 minimum wage in coronavirus relief package

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A proposal from Bernie Sanders to raise the federal hourly minimum wage to $15 from its current $7.25 failed in the Senate after the senator sought to include the measure in a White House-backed coronavirus relief package.

The House of Representatives included the wage hike in its version of its $1.9 trillion legislation, which includes unemployment relief, support for families with children, and funding for schools and vaccine distribution, among other initiatives critical to Joe Biden’s plan to combat the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout a year after the outbreak.

After the Senate rules-advising parliamentarian shot down the inclusion of a wage increase in the bill, Senator Sanders vowed to introduce an amendment to put it into the legislation. The proposal would gradually raise the minimum wage by $2.25 each year through 2025.

On Friday all Senate Republicans, seven Democrats and one Independent senator rejected the amendment for a vote of 42-58 against. It needed 60 votes to pass.

The senator from Vermont said he believes the parliamentarian’s decision was “dead wrong” and part of an “absurd process” to allow an unelected official to determine “whether 30 million Americans get a pay raise.”

“If any Senator believes this is the last time they will cast a vote on whether or not to give a raise to 32 million Americans, they are sorely mistaken,” he said in a statement. “We’re going to keep bringing it up.”

Democratic senators who opposed the amendment include Joe Manchin, Jon Tester, Jeanne Shaheen, Maggie Hassan, Kyrsten Sinema, Tom Carper, and Chris Coons, along with Angus King, an independent who caucused with Democrats.

In a statement, Senator Sinema of Arizona said: “Senators in both parties have shown support for raising the federal minimum wage and the Senate should hold an open debate and amendment process on raising the minimum wage, separate from the Covid-focused reconciliation bill.”

The other Democratic senator from Arizona, recently elected Mark Kelly, did vote for the wage hike.

“At a time when millions of workers are earning starvation wages, when the minimum wage has not been raised by Congress since 2007 and stands at a pathetic $7.25 an hour, it is time to raise the minimum wage to a living wage,” Senator Sanders said in a statement this week.

The federally set minimum wage has not been raised since 2009. A hike from $7.25 to $15 an hour would lift nearly 1 million Americans out of poverty and raise wages for millions of workers, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

The federal budget office also said the wage hike would raise the deficit by $54 billion over 10 years, a more dramatic increase than one predicted in a similar CBO report from just two years ago with a similar proposal.

Its 2021 report says a wage increase could lead to 1.4 million job cuts by 2025, but it also would lift 900,000 people out of poverty and raise incomes for 17 million people, or roughly 10 per cent of the US workforce. Another 10 million workers who earn slightly more than $15 per hour would also see pay raises.

“I find it hard to understand how the CBO concluded that raising the minimum wage would increase the deficit to $54 billion” compared to projected deficit increase of just $1 million over 10 years in a 2019 report, Senator Sanders said in a statement last month.

In 2019, the office reported that a $15 minimum wage would raise incomes for 27 million Americans, immediately lift 1.3 million Americans out of poverty, and give raises to nearly one-third of all Black workers and one-quarter of Latino workers.

Seven states and Washington DC have passed legislation to raise their minimum wages to $15, but $7.25 an hour remains the minimum wage in 21 other states. Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Tennessee don’t have a state-set minimum wage, instead relying on the federal rate. Georgia and Wyoming have set their minimum to just $5.15, lower than the federal rate, which applies instead.

The Economic Policy Institute reported that the minimum wage, if adjusted for inflation, should have already exceeded $15.

“Yet since the late 1960s, lawmakers have let the value of the minimum wage erode, allowing inflation to gradually reduce the buying power of a minimum wage income,” according to a 2019 report.

The group has reported that the minimum wage would have been $21.69 in 2020 and $23.53 by 2025 if it kept pace with economic gains; instead, $7.25 is worth 30 per cent less than it did 50 years ago, the group found.

“Every senator who voted against $15 should spend a day [with] a fast-food or home care worker,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of Service Employees International Union, which has helped organise a worker-led Fight For $15 campaign.

“Part of your duty to the American people is to understand the inherent dignity [and] worth of all work [and] the reality of the struggle of too many who cannot get by on poverty wages,” she said on Twitter.

The White House – as well as Vice President Kamala Harris, who campaigned alongside Senator Sanders on the issue – has supported raising the minimum wage to $15 but did not urge Democrats to ignore the parliamentarian guidance.

Raising the minimum wage is “about the floor, not the ceiling,” Ms Harris said during a campaign event with Mr Sanders and Fight For $15 organisers.

Biden administration officials are reportedly weighing whether to negotiate with congressional Republicans on yet another compromise increase to the federal minimum, which has strong bipartisan support among Americans and voters; in Florida, a state ballot measure to raise the minimum wage received more votes than either presidential candidate in the 2020 election.

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