Why a Debate on the Minimum Wage Could Spark a D.C. Meltdown

7 minute read

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Washington is a lot like high school: being popular doesn’t necessarily translate to getting taken seriously. Twin Democratic priorities are about to face their Mean Girls test.

On Saturday, the House passed Democrats’ $1.9 trillion pandemic-relief package, which included a provision to double the current federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by June of 2025. Because Republicans are refusing to go along, Democrats planned to use a budget gimmick to let them avoid a filibuster and pass it into law with a slim 50-vote majority, plus the backing of Vice President Kamala Harris. But the Senate’s keeper of the rules, its parliamentarian, ruled that lawmakers couldn’t use the trick here because the wage hike — which would lift almost a million Americans out of poverty — wasn’t really a budget move.

Frustrated, progressives in the House are now openly calling for Democrats in the Senate to either overrule the parliamentarian’s ruling or do away with the filibuster, which would allow them to pass the relief bill through the Senate with the minimum wage hike by a simple majority.

“Our two options are realistically this: override the parliamentarian or eliminate the filibuster,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told MSNBC on Sunday. The next day, Rep. Ro Khanna and 22 of his colleagues sent the White House an open-letter further pressuring the Administration not to accept the parliamentarian’s ruling. And today, outside groups are building pressure with grassroots activists to not let the issue falter. Raising the minimum wage has been a Democratic priority for a while, and many congressional Democrats see attaching it to the relief bill as their fastest, easiest option to get it passed.

But most lawmakers in the Senate don’t support the idea of overruling the Senate parliamentarian — and perhaps more importantly, neither does the White House. Even if all Democrats were unified behind the demand, it would still take Harris to break the 50-50 tie, and the White House has said it has no interest in seeing the VP, a former Senator and current presiding officer of the body, in that role.

So Democrats have a choice. They can heed tradition, respect the ruling of the parliamentarian and abandon their popular campaign promise of a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Or they can barrel ahead, either ignoring the Senate’s rules referee or moving to abolish the 60-vote filibuster altogether. The minimum-wage hike is important here, but perhaps more consequential are the aftershocks the latter move would create for both parties in the future when they are relegated to the minority. And either path for the Democrats could still tank the broader pandemic-relief package, which has only the thinnest of padding behind it.

Absent memes of puppies, there are few things in Washington as broadly popular as the two things Democrats are fighting for: raising the minimum wage and getting another round of cash out the door to Americans. A Hill/ Harris poll from back in January found that 64% of voters support raising the minimum wage, including roughly a third of Republicans. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia already have minimum wages that outpace the federal one, meaning businesses there are used to slightly better pay for their poorest workers. And there aren’t that many of them; fewer than 250,000 people make the federal minimum wage in a workforce of 140 million people.

The broader pandemic plan also has deep backing. It would send $1,400 checks to some Americans, with the exact income-cutoff number being haggled over between moderate Democrats and the White House. It would also send cash to reopen schools and keep unemployment benefits from expiring in two weeks. A Morning Consult poll from mid-February shows 76% of Americans support those goals, including 60% of Republican voters.

There is precedent for ignoring the parliamentarian, as progressives are demanding. A Democratic majority did so in 2013 when it invoked the so-called nuclear option to confirm administration positions and most judges. Republicans followed-up in 2017 when they made a majority the threshold for Supreme Court nominees. And those efforts, it must be noted, were far less popular than the twin ideas crossing to the Senate this week.

But Republicans have been arguing that the Democrats’ plan to push the relief package through the Senate without Republican support is little more than a way to force a liberal wishlist of extraneous policy aims. And with almost $2 trillion in the air, it’s tough to argue that this isn’t a scattershot approach to big problems that aren’t going to be cheap to fix. While the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that 900,000 Americans would be lifted out of poverty and 14 million workers would see their paychecks increase if the minimum wage is increased, it also approximates the House plan would cost the U.S. economy 1.4 million jobs.

At present, the GOP seems unable to derail the broader plan. But Democrats could inadvertently do it for them if they aren’t careful. First, it’s possible that more conservative Senate Democrats could balk at the package, including Sen. Joe Manchin who has said he is worried about spending more taxpayer dollars without a specific target. Others, like Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, have said they are uncomfortable about triggering a rules change as pushed by Ocasio-Cortez. (And neither she nor Manchin are championing a $15-per-hour wage, so even at a 50-vote threshold, Democrats may still lack support if they nuke the filibuster to try to push a package through with a minimum wage hike.)

Then there’s the risk from the left. If the likes of Ocasio-Cortez and Khanna dig in, they could end up hobbling the relief package, if not spiking it. When lawmakers in the past have deployed this bare-majority trick, the House would pass the first draft of this legislation and send it to the Senate. The Senate then should work with the House, tinker with its language and send it back to the House. And then the House, in an ideal world, should accept the changes negotiated by its leadership. But, as the parliamentarian ruled, you can use this process only on specific fiscal moves, and a minimum wage isn’t one of them. The process was designed to iron out kinks in nettlesome budgets, not necessarily major social programs.

Democrats know they have public opinion on their side for the add-on wage boost and the underlying $2 trillion bill. It’s going to be very tempting for progressives not to at least flirt with trying to get the two married again. It’s sexy for the lefties and doesn’t alienate most moderates. Plus, it might actually do good for the poorest workers in the economy, those disproportionately hit by the pandemic’s fallout. The margins, though, are razor thin: Democrats can afford just four defections in the House, and two already have voted against this bill in its first at-bat.

If progressives are thwarted, instead of taking a win on passing a relief bill without the minimum wage increase, they may be tempted to eliminate the filibuster for good to try to pass both together. If the rules requiring 60 votes for almost everything keep anything from happening, why not blow them up entirely?

Well, it’s possible. But views on that are about as split as the Senate itself, which means Democrats could go from chasing popular ideas like boosting the minimum wage and getting cash to Americans to a partisan process brawl that has, at best, coin-toss backing. So this comes down to a central question inherent to so much in Washington: will the ideal be the downfall of the possible? Or will someone have a Mean Girls moment and have the outburst so many think: “You can’t sit with us.”

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com