Biden’s minimum wage push faces uphill battle with GOP

President-elect Joe Biden’s proposal to boost the minimum wage to $15 an hour is emerging as an early source of partisan division in his broader COVID-19 relief plan.

Biden won plaudits from progressives for including a policy to increase the federal minimum wage for the first time in over a decade in his $1.9 trillion relief package unveiled on Thursday.

But some lawmakers on the other side of the aisle were quick to criticize that component of his plan, arguing it would hamper, rather than help, the recovery.

“Forcing a $15 minimum wage into a coronavirus relief bill would do nothing but shutter the millions of small businesses already on life support and would force those that survive to lay-off employees,” said Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).

Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey (R), who is not seeking reelection, said COVID-19 relief should focus on vastly expanding vaccinations, not raising the minimum wage.

“If the federal government mandates a universal $15 minimum wage, many low income Americans will lose their current jobs and find fewer job opportunities in the future,” he said.

Biden, who has staked out a goal of passing the relief package with bipartisan support, appeared to anticipate some of the subsequent GOP backlash by noting on Thursday that increasing the minimum wage is popular, even in red states.

“People tell me that’s going to be hard to pass. Florida just passed it, as divided as that state is, they just passed it,” he said.

President Trump won Florida in the past two elections, and the state has a Republican governor and two GOP senators.

Yet voters in the Sunshine State approved a ballot initiative in November raising the minimum wage to $15.

“The rest of the country is ready to move as well,” Biden said.

Twenty states and numerous localities increased their own minimum wage rates on Jan. 1.

Nationwide polling indicates broad support for a $15 minimum wage. A 2019 Pew poll found that 67 percent of Americans backed a $15 rate, while a more recent Ipsos poll from August showed 72 percent of respondents supported raising the minimum wage by some amount, including 62 percent of Republicans.

But getting 10 Senate Republicans to back Biden’s COVID-19 proposal and avoid a GOP filibuster will likely prove challenging.

Moderates such as Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) did not respond to requests for comment from The Hill.

A House-passed bill in 2019 that would have gradually increased the minimum wage until it hit $15 in 2025 was never brought to the floor by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a progressive who praised Biden’s proposal, said Democrats should use legislative workarounds if enough Republicans don’t get on board.

“Let’s be clear: if the Republicans want to drag their feet while working families struggle, the Democratic majority should use every legislative tool available to pass it,” she tweeted, an apparent reference to budget reconciliation, a tool that would allow Democrats to pass some legislation by a simple majority.

But policies that do not have direct budgetary effects, or are only incidental to the budget, are prohibited from reconciliation legislation, meaning a minimum wage hike is likely to remain subject to a GOP filibuster.

While Democrats could get much of Biden’s COVID-19 package through Congress without Republican support, they will have little choice but to secure GOP votes if they want to raise the minimum wage.

In the House, where Democrats can easily pass their preferred policies even with a slim majority, GOP opposition is already clear.

Rep. Jason Smith (Mo.), the top Republican on the Budget Committee, called Biden’s proposal a liberal wishlist and decried adding more “rules, costs and burdens for small businesses.”

“Using an economic crisis as an excuse to advance an unrelated agenda is the type of politics that hardworking Americans are tired of,” he said.

A Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report on the Democratic minimum wage bill from 2019 said there was a range of possible outcomes on employment, with job losses ranging from “about zero and 3.7 million.”

In the middle scenario, the economy would have 1.3 million fewer jobs, even as 1.3 million would be lifted out of poverty. Some 17 million people would see their income increase, the CBO estimated.

Conservative groups such as the Job Creators Network say changes to the tax code are preferable to increasing the minimum wage.

“A better approach to help entry-level workers and small businesses is the Biden administration’s proposal to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit,” said the group’s president, Alfredo Ortiz.

That approach, which Biden included as part of his COVID-19 relief plan, puts the onus on the government to boost the incomes of low-wage workers, rather than on businesses.

Brian Gardner, chief Washington policy strategist for Stifel Financial Corp., said he expects Biden’s proposal to get whittled down through negotiations.

“We view yesterday’s release as an opening bid,” he said, predicting that a final package would carry a price tag less than half what Biden proposed.

Getting a deal on the minimum wage will prove an early test of Biden’s campaign assurances that he would be able to work across the aisle to advance Democratic priorities.

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who until recently chaired the Senate Finance Committee, was skeptical of the package, saying “few of the line items in this proposal seem like they could undermine the bill’s own good intentions,” but also sounded a note of optimism.

“I’m open to more relief in light of this crisis, but I’ll need to more closely review the proposal and perhaps even see changes before I can offer my full support,” he said.

Tags Chuck Grassley COVID-19 relief Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Jason Smith Joe Biden Lisa Murkowski Minimum wage Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney Pat Toomey Susan Collins Tim Scott

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