Centrist Democrats raise concerns over $15 minimum wage push

House Democrats are moving forward with legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour, despite concerns from centrist lawmakers about the impact on lower-cost areas.

Democratic leaders say they’re close to clinching the 218 votes needed to pass the bill, which they expect to bring to the floor in July.

All but 29 of the 235 Democratic lawmakers in the House have cosponsored the measure. Many of the holdouts are moderates who are concerned that a significant wage boost in a short period of time could have an unintended effect in more rural settings.


“I am concerned about the fact that $15 is an arbitrary number that means a lot more in certain parts of the country than it does another,” said Rep. Dean PhillipsDean PhillipsLawmakers spend more on personal security in wake of insurrection Omar feuds with Jewish Democrats Shakespeare gets a congressional hearing in this year's 'Will on the Hill' MORE (D-Minn.), who flipped a seat in 2018 that had been held by Republicans for years.

“I believe there are better mechanisms by which we can ensure that by providing incentives to enterprises who take better care of people,” Phillips said, adding that he was on the fence about supporting the bill.

The legislation would raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 within five years and index future increases to median wage growth.

Raising the minimum wage has been a staple of Democratic policy for years. But Congress has only voted twice in the past two decades to increase the minimum wage, and it has been stagnant at its current rate since 2009.

Many Democrats argue that raising the minimum wage is key to helping workers and reducing poverty, while also lowering dependence on government welfare programs.

But other Democrats argue that in a country as economically diverse as the United States, an across-the-board base wage doesn’t make sense.


“The minimum wage in San Francisco should probably be $30 an hour, OK? But the minimum wage in West Virginia or Arkansas is a different story,” said freshman Rep. Jefferson Van Drew (D-N.J.), whose state recently moved to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2024.

Businesses have also raised concerns about increasing labor costs in places that have a lower cost of living.

“Fifteen dollars in New York City is not the same as $15 in Oklahoma City,” said Shannon Meade, vice president of public policy at the National Restaurant Association, a group that has raised red flags about a provision in the bill to gradually move tipped workers over to the standard minimum wage.

“Raising it too soon or too high will hurt small businesses, force a reduction in hours available to work and potentially put restaurants out of business,” she said.

Van Drew acknowledged that he’s heard from business interests in his state and elsewhere that “don’t love” raising the minimum wage to $15. At the same time, he said establishing a national standard would ensure that states like his aren’t at a disadvantage if a neighboring state — Pennsylvania, in his case — has a lower minimum wage.

“There are folks in my state that feel, 'Well, gee, if we've got to put up with it, we have it already, let's compete on an equal footing and let every state have it,’” Van Drew said.

For now, Van Drew said he is leaning toward voting for the bill but wants to ensure it doesn’t negatively impact the minimum wage policies in New Jersey — concerns he has expressed to leadership.

“So my sense is, not my absolute promise, but my sense is that I would vote for it. I just have to continue to finish that evaluation that we're going through right now,” Van Drew said.

Progressives such as Rep. Mark PocanMark William PocanOvernight Defense: 6B Pentagon spending bill advances | Navy secretary nominee glides through hearing | Obstacles mount in Capitol security funding fight House panel advances 6B Pentagon bill on party-line vote Democratic tensions simmer in House between left, center MORE (D-Wis.), who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, dispute that incremental minimum wage hikes have negative effects on businesses and employment.

“Every time we've raised the minimum wage in Wisconsin, we've had more people enter the job market and businesses have done fine,” he said.

Progressives won over some moderate Democrats with the promise of a Government Accountability Office study to measure the effects of the wage increase on businesses, Pocan said.

A senior Democratic aide said that leadership is discussing with members a number of amendments, including one that would study the impact on small businesses, as they work to clinch 218 votes.

Some Democrats have suggested allowing lower-cost parts of the country to raise the minimum wage more slowly, an approach that would be achieved by a bill Rep. Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellDemocratic tensions simmer in House between left, center Alabama museum unveils restored Greyhound bus for Freedom Rides' 60th anniversary Rep. Terri Sewell declines to run for Senate in Alabama MORE (D-Ala.) introduced in April.

But House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottNow is the time to end the subminimum wage for people with disabilities House passes bill to ease standards for age discrimination cases House to take big step on eliminating Trump-era rules MORE (D-Va.) suggested that establishing a minimum wage on a regional basis wouldn’t be feasible.

“There would be some congressional districts with three minimum wages. Some franchises would have minimum wages in different restaurants,” Scott said. “The more you think about it, the less it works.”

Even if Democrats muster the votes to pass the bill in the House, there is little chance that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHouse Democrats grow frustrated as they feel ignored by Senate Democrats question GOP shift on vaccines Has Trump beaten the system? MORE (R-Ky.) would bring it up for a vote.

Democrats such as Phillips argue that if Democrats want their bill signed into law, an alternative approach is needed to win over Republicans. 

“I think there's a way to build bridges with Republicans, especially business owners, who recognize that the intersection here is encouraging through incentives and and encouraging employee ownership,” he said. 

In the meantime, proponents of raising the minimum wage nationally are focused on getting enough House Democrats on board for the floor vote. 

Rep. Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalHouse Democrats grow frustrated as they feel ignored by Senate Schumer feels pressure from all sides on spending strategy Liberal House Democrats urge Schumer to stick to infrastructure ultimatum MORE (D-Wash.), a Progressive Caucus co-chair, said there are some Democrats who aren’t co-sponsors of the bill but have committed to voting for it.

“We believe that we have the votes,” Jayapal said. “We're there, we just need to bring the bill to the floor now.”