Minimum wage hike falls short as Senate debates virus bill

The Senate seemingly killed progressives’ last-ditch effort to include a minimum wage hike in the Democrats’ $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill Friday, as the chamber began climactic votes on the huge package embodying President Joe Biden’s top legislative priority.

Senators voted 58-42 against the increase, though the vote wasn’t yet formally gaveled to a close. Eight Democrats voted against the proposal, suggesting that Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and other progressives vowing to continue the fight in coming months will face a difficult fight.

Though the number of Democrats opposing the proposal was a surprise, its defeat was not. Solid Republican opposition had guaranteed in advance that proponents would fall well short of the 60 votes needed to win. The proposal would boost the federal minimum wage to $15 hourly by 2025, up from its current $7.25.

The overall bill, aimed at battling the killer virus and nursing the staggered economy back to health, will provide direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans. There’s also money for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, aid to state and local governments, help for schools and the airline industry, tax breaks for lower-earners and families with children, and subsidies for health insurance.

The Senate had voted 51-50 Thursday to begin debating the legislation, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the pivotal tie-breaking vote. That nail-biter and the eleventh-hour deals Democratic leaders were cutting with rank-and-file lawmakers reflected the delicate task they faced of moving the measure through the precariously divided 50-50 chamber. The package faces a solid wall of GOP opposition.

Senate approval, considered likely over the weekend, would give the House time to approve the legislation and whisk it to Biden for his signature.

Senate nears relief bill votes after half-day GOP delay

First, the Senate was preparing to vote on a mountain of amendments, mostly by GOP opponents and virtually all destined to fail but designed to force Democrats to take politically awkward votes.

But among those amendments was a Democratic proposal expected to pass that would trim the House bill’s $400 weekly emergency unemployment benefits.

Under the compromise, those payments — payable on top of regular state benefits — would be reduced to $300, but run an extra month through September. The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., would also reduce taxes on unemployment benefits.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki signaled Biden’s support for the new minimum wage language, tweeting that it would “provide more relief to the unemployed” than the bill’s original provision.

Biden and Senate leaders had agreed earlier to retain the House bill’s higher $400 version. The reduction to $300 seemed to reflect a need to secure support for the overall bill, particularly from moderate Democrats.

Republicans are attacking the overall bill as a liberal spend-fest that ignores that growing numbers of vaccinations and signs of a stirring economy suggest that the twin crises are easing.

“Our country is already set for a roaring recovery," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in part citing an unexpectedly strong report on job creation. “Democrats inherited a tide that was already turning.”

Democrats reject that, citing the 10 million jobs the economy has lost during the pandemic and numerous people still struggling to buy food and pay rent.

“If you just look at a big number you say, ‘Oh, everything’s getting a little better,’" said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. “It’s not for the lower half of America. It’s not."

In an encouraging sign for Biden, a poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that 70% of Americans support his handling of the pandemic, including a noteworthy 44% of Republicans.

Work on the bill mired down Thursday when Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., forced the chamber’s clerks to read aloud the entire 628-page measure. The exhausting task took the staffers 10 hours and 44 minutes and ended shortly after 2 a.m. EST, with Johnson alternately sitting at his desk and pacing around the mostly empty chamber.

Democrats made a host of other late changes to the bill, designed to win over all manner of Democrats.

Progressives got money boosting feeding programs, federal subsidies for health care for workers who lose jobs, tax-free student loans, and money for public broadcasting and consumer protection investigations.

Moderates won funds for rural health care, language assuring minimum amounts of money for smaller states and a prohibition on states receiving aid using the windfalls to cut taxes. And for everyone, there was money for infrastructure, cultural venues, start-up companies and afterschool programs.

In another late bargain that satisfied moderates, Biden and Senate Democrats agreed Wednesday to tighten eligibility for the direct checks to individuals. The new provision completely phases out the $1,400 payments for individuals earning at least $80,000 and couples making $160,000, well lower than the original ceilings.

The alterations left House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., the task of keeping her chamber’s numerous progressives on board. Liberals already suffered a blow when their No. 1 priority — a federal minimum wage increase to $15 hourly that was included in the House package — was booted from the bill in the Senate for violating the chamber’s rules and for lack of moderates’ support.

Johnson told reporters he was forcing the bill’s reading to “shine the light on this abusive and obscene amount of money.” Schumer Friday morning praised the staffers who worked late as “the unsung heroes of this place” and said of Johnson, “I hope he enjoyed his Thursday evening.”

The economic recovery began to stall late last year as the virus surged, causing a shortfall in hiring in recent months. The Labor Department said Friday that the economy added 379,000 jobs last month, indicating unexpected strength as virus cases fall and consumers boost spending but still leaving a long way for the country’s job market fully recovers.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates economic growth will exceed 4% this year without Biden’s rescue package. Republicans cite that as evidence the economy is pointed upward, but Democrats say a strong economic stimulus is still needed to prevent a relapse.