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Democrats want to bend the rules for wage hike

Move over, nuclear option. Here comes the “dirty bomb”

Sen. Bernie Sanders Associated Press/Photo by Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

Democrats want to bend the rules for wage hike

(Update: On Thursday night, Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled the Democrats may not include a minimum wage increase in the COVID-19 relief bill that congressional leaders are seeking to pass using the budget reconciliation process.)

WASHINGTON—Democrats are trying to pass a federal minimum wage increase without Republican support by taking the long way around U.S. Senate rules.

Though the left has control of the White House and both houses of Congress, it still cannot get a piece of legislation past a Senate filibuster without 60 votes. Democrats could pass a rule change to do away with the filibuster with a simple majority vote, a maneuver known as the “nuclear option.” If they did, any piece of ordinary legislation could pass with 51 votes, dramatically boosting the power of whichever party holds a majority. So far, leaders of both parties have tried to avoid doing that.

Instead, Democrats are considering a move that one conservative policy group, Heritage Action, has dubbed the “dirty bomb.” It would break Senate rules by passing a major policy change as part of the budget reconciliation process, which only requires a majority—something Democrats can deliver with their 50 senators and the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Progressives, especially Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have long pushed for increasing the federal minimum wage.

“Millions of people are trying to survive on starvation wages,” Sanders told The Guardian last month. “For me, it’s morally imperative that we raise the minimum wage to a living wage that’s at least $15 an hour.”

Sanders advocates for muscling the $15 minimum wage through in the next COVID-19 stimulus bill, a move Republicans say would violate the Byrd rule. Named for former Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.V., the rule mandates anything included in budget reconciliation must directly affect federal spending or revenue levels and not be “extraneous.” The Byrd rule also states that a reconciliation measure cannot increase the federal deficit beyond a 10-year window.

The Congressional Budget Office reported that raising the minimum wage would lead to significant, long-term effects such as higher prices for goods and services for consumers.

The final call on whether a bill violates the Byrd rule rests with Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, an unelected, nonpartisan official. Both parties seek her guidance in crafting legislation they hope to include in budget reconciliation.

Sanders, who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, said Tuesday that MacDonough “listened attentively to our position. She’ll listen attentively, I’m sure, to the other side’s point of view. … We believe and hope she will rule in our direction.” MacDonough’s decision could come at any time.

In 2001, when there was also a split Senate, Republicans dismissed parliamentarian Robert Dove due to several of his rulings on tax and budget issues. Democrats have not said whether they would push for MacDonough’s removal if she did not approve the wage hike as part of budget reconciliation. Other options include Democratic leaders simply ignoring her ruling and including the increase, a move that would open the door for Republicans to do the same in the future.

“Overruling the parliamentarian would set a dangerous precedent in the Senate that 50 senators can ignore long-standing Senate rules, go around the filibuster, and pass divisive policy over the objections of half the country’s elected representatives,” said Noah Weinrich, a spokesman for Heritage Action. “If they do it now, in the future there will be nothing blocking either party from doing the exact same thing to pass whatever legislation they see fit through the reconciliation process with a bare majority.”

Even if the $15 minimum wage makes it into budget reconciliation, moderate Democratic Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia have said they oppose that big of an increase. Party leaders would likely try to pressure them to change their position or compromise by lowering the figure to $11 an hour.

Harvest Prude

Harvest is a former political reporter for WORLD’s Washington Bureau. She is a World Journalism Institute and Patrick Henry College graduate.


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