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Sanders defuses late-night fight over $15 minimum wage

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Equilibrium — Presented by NextEra Energy — Tasmanian devil wipes out penguin population Overnight Health Care: Medicaid enrollment reaches new high | White House gives allocation plan for 55M doses | Schumer backs dental, vision, hearing in Medicare Schumer backing plan to add dental, vision and hearing coverage to Medicare MORE (I-Vt.) defused a middle-of-the-night fight over increasing the federal minimum wage, effectively allowing Democrats to sidestep going on the record on the issue for now.

Sen. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstOvernight Defense: Pentagon details military construction projects getting .2B restored from wall funds | Biden chooses former commander to lead Navy | Bill seeks to boost visa program for Afghans who helped US Meghan McCain: Harris 'sounded like a moron' discussing immigration Senate bill would add visas, remove hurdles to program for Afghans who helped US MORE (R-Iowa) during Thursday's vote-a-rama brought up her amendment that would throw the Senate's support behind not increasing the wage to $15 per hour during a global health pandemic.

"A $15 federal minimum wage would be devastating for our hardest-hit small businesses at a time when they can least afford it," Ernst said.

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She added that while all senators "support higher wages ... a $15 federal minimum wage would be counterproductive to this goal."

The amendment, like most during the Senate's hours-long vote-a-rama on the budget resolution, is nonbinding. But a roll call vote would have forced Democrats to go on the record on increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour while they are still trying to figure out a policy that unifies their narrow majority. 

Sanders, who has led the push to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, quickly stood up to speak on the Senate floor and, in a twist, it wasn't to oppose Ernst's amendment, but to support it.

"It was never my intention to increase the minimum wage to $15 immediately and during the pandemic," Sanders said. "My legislation gradually increases the minimum wage to $15 an hour over a five-year period and that is what I believe we have got to do."

He added that was going to support Ernst's amendment "because nobody is talking about doubling the federal minimum wage during the pandemic."

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The amendment ultimately passed the Senate by a voice vote, instead of the high-stakes roll call vote that budget watchers were waiting for Republicans to force.

President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan includes an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. The idea has the support of powerful progressives, like Sanders, in both chambers, as well as members of leadership.

But increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour doesn't appear to currently have the 50 Senate votes needed to make it law. 

A separate stand-alone bill from Sanders that would raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2025 has the support of 37 additional senators.

The budget resolution that the Senate is expected to pass early Friday morning paves the way for Democrats to pass subsequent coronavirus relief legislation without GOP support. 

Supporters of increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour want to include it in that bill, but if Democrats pass coronavirus relief on their own, they'll need a proposal that can win over every member of their Senate caucus in the evenly divided 50-50 chamber.

Several Democratic senators have declined to say if they specifically support increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSinema defends filibuster ahead of Senate voting rights showdown The Hill's Equilibrium — Presented by NextEra Energy — Tasmanian devil wipes out penguin population Democrats go down to the wire with Manchin MORE (D-W.Va.), a crucial vote, has explicitly said he opposes it.