#masthead-section-label, #masthead-bar-one { display: none }

news analysis

With Demise of Wage Increase, Biden and Democrats Face Progressive Ire

President Biden and top Democrats are working to ensure that frustration over the exclusion of the minimum wage increase in the stimulus plan does not overshadow the success of the package.

Activists appealing for a $15 minimum wage near the Capitol last month in Washington.
Credit…J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

  • March 2, 2021

WASHINGTON — The demise of President Biden’s plan to raise the federal minimum wage as part of his economic stimulus plan has prompted anger among progressives on Capitol Hill and around the country, threatening to overshadow a moment of triumph for Democrats this week as they push through a nearly $2 trillion pandemic aid package.

The simmering tension is unlikely to derail the plan, which is packed with longtime Democratic priorities including enhanced federal jobless aid, direct payments to Americans, and hundreds of billions of dollars for states, cities and tribal governments suffering fiscal shortfalls. But the liberal angst over the measure, coming little more than a month after Mr. Biden took office, foreshadows larger fights to come over the rest of his agenda, and a difficult road ahead for Democrats in navigating the divide.

It also risks muddling what the White House and party leaders had hoped would be a clear and politically potent message on the stimulus measure, which Democrats are working feverishly to portray as a momentous and broadly popular accomplishment that Republicans should be scorned for opposing.

Instead, some of the loudest progressive voices in recent days have been focused on demanding that Mr. Biden and leading Democrats push harder to rescue the minimum wage increase proposal from a procedural thicket in the Senate by changing the chamber’s rules. Their pleas ignore the fact that the proposal does not have enough support even among Democrats to pass.

“This cause has touched a nerve among progressive advocacy groups and among activists around the country in a way that I haven’t seen,” said Representative Ro Khanna of California, who led a letter to Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Monday that was signed by 23 Democrats asking them to overrule a top official who has deemed the wage increase out of order for the stimulus measure. “This is a defining moment for our party, for the administration. I think that there’s the opportunity to really be the hero to millions of Americans who are looking to us to deliver.”

With unemployment benefits set to begin running out on March 14 and an evenly divided Senate offering little room for dissent or delay, the White House and leading Democrats have rejected such entreaties, and Mr. Biden has instead begun an outreach campaign to Democratic lawmakers to ensure swift passage of the legislation.

In a private 15-minute phone call with senators on Tuesday, the president emphasized the need for Democrats to remain united around a bill that has drawn wide bipartisan support outside Washington, counseling lawmakers to move swiftly and reject so-called poison pill amendments from Republicans intended to kill it, according to four people familiar with the discussion who described it on the condition of anonymity.

Privately, some Democrats questioned Mr. Biden’s handling of the minimum wage increase. He included the proposal, which would gradually raise the wage to $15 per hour by 2025 and has long been championed by progressives, in his original stimulus plan, only to quickly concede defeat on the matter, telling CBS in an interview weeks ago that “I put it in, but I don’t think it’s going to survive.”

The president’s allies say Mr. Biden was only acknowledging the reality in the Senate, where legislation considered under the fast-track budget process known as reconciliation must comply by strict rules. Democrats are pushing the pandemic aid bill through Congress using that process, which protects certain fiscal measures from filibusters, to bypass Republican opposition and pass it with a simple majority rather than 60 votes.

Others fault the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, for her guidance, questioning why she would reject the provision when she has allowed other seemingly unrelated initiatives with less effect on the budget in previous reconciliation bills, including language that allowed drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in the 2017 Republican tax plan.

Mr. Biden may also have been thinking about the fact that a crucial centrist Democrat, Senator Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, had announced his opposition to the wage hike, a problem that grew only more insurmountable when a second Democrat, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, said soon after that she also did not favor including it in the stimulus plan.

Still, when Ms. MacDonough advised lawmakers last week that she considered the wage hike out of bounds for a reconciliation measure, liberal activists swiftly began applying pressure. They demanded that Democrats reject the ruling and abolish the 60-vote filibuster threshold that had prompted them to turn to the reconciliation process in the first place. Leading progressives, including Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, have been vocal in urging Democrats to consider such moves.

Democrats are determined to highlight the positive aspects of the stimulus measure, encouraging rank-and-file lawmakers to discuss them on Friday during a so-called day of action in the House.

“It’s their job to fight for as much as they can get, and I share their disappointment,” Senator Brian Schatz, Democrat of Hawaii, said of progressives frustrated about the minimum wage. But, ticking off a list of priorities in the measure — including eviction funding and some of the most aggressive federal action to reduce child poverty — he added, “These are long-term policy objectives, and they’re all in this package.”

Still, the tensions are likely to linger beyond the stimulus measure and fuel the debate among Democrats about whether to do away with filibusters altogether to secure their most ambitious priorities. Mr. Manchin has consistently said he would not go along with such a move, which would require every Democrat, the Senate’s two liberal-leaning independents and Ms. Harris to unite to force a change in the rules.

“Never!” Mr. Manchin bellowed at reporters on Monday as they made their latest inquiries about the prospect of ending the filibuster. “What don’t you understand about ‘never’?”

Top Democrats said that the filibuster and other arcane Senate rules would continue to be a hotly debated issue as long as they were seen as a death knell for liberal ambitions.

“If we would get rid of the filibuster, then we wouldn’t have to keep trying to force the camel through an eye of a needle,” said Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. “Instead, we would do what the majority of Americans want us to do, and in this case that’s raise the minimum wage.”

In the House, Representative James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the No. 3 Democrat, framed the fight to increase the minimum wage as a civil rights issue, vowing to pursue it at all costs.

Invoking his formative years as a Black man in the South in the 1960s, Mr. Clyburn warned that using the filibuster to “deny progress basically to low-income people” would be “tantamount to using it to deny civil rights.”

“We are not just going to just give in to these arcane methods of denying progress,” Mr. Clyburn told reporters on Tuesday as House Democrats gathered to plot their legislative strategy for the year ahead.

The filibuster “was used to deny me and people who looked like me the opportunity to come to this Congress,” he said. “They are not going to deny the opportunity for people to make a decent living above the poverty wage.”

For now, even some of the Senate’s most progressive members are facing pressure to deliver a priority that has divided the party. After Democrats spent the weekend trying to devise a Plan B for the wage hike — a pursuit they ultimately abandoned — Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, the independent who leads the Budget Committee, said he would try a last-ditch effort to add the minimum wage increase back into the stimulus measure when the Senate votes this week.

“My own personal view is that the Senate should ignore the parliamentarian’s advice, which is wrong in a number of respects,” Mr. Sanders said in a statement on Monday evening announcing his plans for an amendment. “I am not sure, however, that my view at this point is the majority view in the Democratic caucus.”

Whatever happens, Democratic leaders signaled confidence that lawmakers in both chambers would continue to support the legislation, even as moderate Democrats push to scale back some aspects, including narrowing eligibility for the direct payments.

“Every member of our caucus, I believe, has had input into the bill we will put on the floor,” Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the majority leader, said on Tuesday. “We’ll have the votes we need to pass the bill.”

Nicholas Fandos, Margot Sanger-Katz and Sarah Kliff contributed reporting.