Bernie Sanders sticks Senate colleagues in the hot seat, promptly sees $15 minimum wage defeated

Sanders is standing his ground on the wage hike even after many of his colleagues retreat

By Jon Skolnik

Staff Writer

Published March 5, 2021 3:16PM (EST)

Bernie Sanders and Mitch McConnell (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Bernie Sanders and Mitch McConnell (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Despite a tough legislative setback posed by the Senate parliamentarian last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., announced that he will not back down in his fight to include a $15 minimum wage in the $1.9 trillion COVID relief package, ultimately losing a forced vote on his amendment to the bill Friday afternoon. 

Originally, Senate Democrats intended to push through the wage hike via budget reconciliation, a process that circumvents the Senate supermajority needed to ratify the bill. However, last week the unelected Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough, shot down the maneuver on the grounds that it did not comply with the rules surrounding the legislative process. 

The ruling proved a fatal blow for progressives like Sanders looking to buoy people out of poverty under the weight of the pandemic. "The idea we have a parliamentarian that is elected by nobody," said Sanders during an interview on Wednesday, "who is simply a Senate staffer, making a determination that 30 million Americans are not going to get a pay raise is to me, unacceptable. So we're sticking with $15 an hour and I believe we are going to pass that."

Nevertheless, Sanders has encouraged the American people to stay optimistic. "I don't want anyone out there to think that we have given up," he said at a virtual Town Hall last Friday.

On Monday, some Democrats signaled a withdrawal from the fight for $15, instead opting to get the relief bill passed as quickly as possible. "Senate Democrats will move forward with a version of the relief bill that does not attempt to raise the minimum wage," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., in a statement on Monday. 

Meanwhile, House Democrats and various progressive groups have called on the Democratic Party to not back down. Earlier this week, Sen. Sanders formulated a "Plan B" with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., to impose higher taxes on corporations that would not comply with the $15 increase. However, the plan was quickly discarded due to fears that corporations might turn full-time employees to independent contractors in an effort to avoid the additional tax burden. 

Now, Sanders plans to tack on the wage hike in an amendment to the relief bill during a legislative period called "vote-a-rama," in which Senators are obliged to introduce a number of amendments after debate has concluded. Sanders said Monday that "there will be a roll call vote, and we'll see who votes for it and doesn't," putting pressure on any Democrats who might elect to break rank. 

The White House has not expressed clear support of the amendment. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill, Senate Democratic Whip, rejected the idea of fighting MacDonough's ruling. "I don't think that's going to work," he said. "I hope that we think very seriously about dealing with the minimum wage in a different venue." 

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a key Biden ally, told Politico that "the minimum wage will be raised, "it's just a question of how much." He continued, "The House may come up with $15 an hour, but I think when it comes to the Senate one way or another it will be cut back."

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., said in a press release: "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."

On Sunday, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on "Fox News Sunday" that the Biden administration will have to "spend the next several days or even weeks figuring out what the best path forward is" regarding the minimum wage, but stressed that the President is "committed" to it.

On Friday, the Senate voted 58 to 42 against Sanders' attempt to waive a procedural objection to adding the wage hike as a provision the relief bill. A group of seven Democrats and one independent –– Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., Jon Tester, D-Mont., Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., Chris Coons, D-Del., Tom Carper, D-Del., and Angus King, I-Maine. –– shot the waiver down. Every Senate Republican also voted against the increase.

By Jon Skolnik

Jon Skolnik is a staff writer at Salon. His work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Baffler, and The New York Daily News.

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