By Susan Cornwell and David Morgan
The U.S. Senate will start debating President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill this week, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Monday after Democrats backed down from an effort to raise the minimum wage to $15 as part of it.
The backpedaling did not end hopes of addressing the minimum wage issue in Congress. Democrats and some Republicans have voiced support for the idea of raising the minimum wage, now $7.25, for the first time since 2009, though they disagree on how much.
Republican Senator Mitt Romney and Tom Cotton last week proposed an increase to $10 per hour, but said employers should also verify the wage is going to workers who are legally in the United States.
But two Senate Democrats acknowledged that passing an increase would be challenging in the 50-50 chamber.
The House of Representatives narrowly approved the COVID-19 package, one of Biden’s top priorities, and aim to pass it through Senate through a maneuver known as “reconciliation,” which would allow the bill to pass with a simple majority rather than the 60 votes normally required by that chamber’s rules.
Senate debate on the COVID-19 bill could begin as early as Wednesday, a Senate Democratic aide said.
Senate Democrats over the weekend gave up on the idea trying to pass the wage hike by adding tax penalties to the COVID-19 bill, after earlier being told Senate rules governing “reconciliation” prevented them including a straight-up wage hike to the legislation.
There are also political hurdles: Some moderate Democrats, including Senator Joe Manchin, have rejected the $15 figure as too high and suggested an $11 target could be more realistic.
“We worked through the weekend and it became clear that finalizing ‘plan B’ with the caucus would delay passage and risk going over the jobless benefits cliff on March 14,” one source said. Democrats want the COVID-19 bill signed into law by March 14, when enhanced unemployment benefits expire.
Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, voiced hope that a wage hike would still happen.
“Senator Sanders is determined to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and he is looking at all available strategies to make it happen,” a source close to Sanders said.
The Senate’s number two Democrat, Dick Durbin, said lawmakers should look for another venue to raise the minimum wage, but that it will be a challenge.
“If it takes some 60 votes or a supermajority of some kind, it’s going to be very difficult, obviously,” Durbin told reporters.
Another Democrat, Senator Richard Blumenthal, said he was optimistic the Democrats would find a way to raise the wage, “even though we may not have the votes right now.”
In the meantime, the Senate faces a looming deadline to pass the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill before the middle of the month, when enhanced unemployment benefits run out for the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, which has killed more than 500,000 in the United States.