Biden and Democrats push for $15 federal minimum wage

Photo: AP Joe Biden met with newly confirmed Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen in the Oval Office of the White House, 29 January.

The Democratic push to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour has emerged as an early flashpoint in the fight for a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, testing President Joe Biden’s ability to bridge Washington’s partisan divides as he pursues his first major legislative victory, AP reported.

Biden called for a $15 hourly minimum wage during his campaign and has followed through by hitching it to a measure that, among other things, calls for $1,400 stimulus checks and $130bn to help schools reopen. Biden argues that anyone who holds a full-time job shouldn’t live in poverty, echoing progressives in the Democratic Party who are fully on board with the effort.

Some Republicans support exploring an increase but are uneasy with $15 an hour. They warn that such an increase could lead to job losses in an economy that has nearly 10 million fewer jobs than it did before the pandemic began. Moderates such as Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Rep. Tom Reed of New York are urging Biden to split off the minimum wage hike from COVID-19 talks and deal with it separately.

The resistance from moderates has left Democrats with a stark choice: Wait and build bipartisan support for an increase or move ahead with little to no GOP backing, potentially as part of a package that can pass the Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris’ tiebreaking vote. Democratic leaders appear to be moving toward the latter option, with no guarantee of success. Even if raising the wage can get past procedural challenges, passage will require the support from every Democrat in the 50-50 Senate, which could be a tall order.

Leading the charge is Sen. Bernie Sanders, the incoming chair of the Senate Budget Committee, who unveiled $15 wage legislation this week with the backing of 37 Senate Democrats. His bill would gradually raise the wage to $15 over a period of five years. The federal minimum is $7.25 and has not been raised since 2009.

The House passed legislation to gradually increase the minimum wage in the last Congress, but it went nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate. Opponents argue that a large increase in the minimum wage would lead many employers to cut the number of workers they have on their payrolls.

Most states also have minimum wage laws. Employees generally are entitled to the higher of the two minimum wages. Currently, 29 states and Washington, D.C., have minimum wages above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

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