What to Know in Washington: Minimum Wage Push Faces Roadblocks

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Sen. Bernie Sanders is prioritizing a bill that would raise the federal minimum wage to $17 per hour, but he’s running into roadblocks inside and outside of the Democratic caucus highlighting the gap lawmakers have struggled to bridge to raise the benchmark over the past decade.

The Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee chair announced his intentions in May with a planned markup on June 14, but seven weeks later the panel passed a slate of Democratic priorities for labor legislation, including an overhaul to laws governing unionization, but not Sanders’ (I-Vt.) minimum wage bill.

Photographer: Graeme Jennings/Washington Examiner/Bloomberg
Sen. Bernie Sanders

“You can’t do everything every day,” Sanders said when asked why the bill wasn’t included in the mix. “We are going to deal with minimum wage.”

The challenge to clear the legislation in the committee, never mind the full Senate and a Republican-controlled House, shows the difficulty Congress has faced for over a decade to raise the federal minimum wage above $7.25. While there is overwhelming popular consensus that the figure is too low in today’s economy, progressives’ reluctance to settle for a number lower than $15 and conservatives’ unwillingness to go that high has kept low-wage workers in 20 states without a pay raise since 2010.

In the absence of federal action, states have updated minimum pay requirements across the US. Thirty states currently have a base wage higher than the federal rate, and several have raised it above $15 per hour. But the reluctance by many states, particularly in the South, to raise their minimum wages above the federal mark is part of the argument by advocates to set a higher rate at the national level.

Another issue lawmakers are considering when discussing the federal minimum wage is the subminimum tipped wage, which allows employers to pay tipped workers a lower rate unless they perform non-tipped work for at least 20% of their hours a week, or for more than 30 minutes straight.

The floor for tipped workers is a top issue for some senators in the Democratic caucus, particularly those from New England, who aren’t in favor of its elimination. Sanders’ previous proposal to establish a $15 minimum wage for all workers would have eliminated the lower rate, currently at $2.13 for tipped workers.

The absence of the minimum wage bill in the June markup session for other labor priorities didn’t surprise some advocates, who theorized it may have been due to the ongoing discussions over the tipped wage.

A major challenge facing Sanders in his pursuit to bump up minimum pay is whether he has the full support of Senate Democrats. Eight senators who caucus with Democrats, including Sen. Maggie Hassan (N.H.) who sits on the HELP committee, voted against a $15 minimum wage bill’s inclusion in the 2021 Covid-19 rescue package, and there isn’t enough Republican support for the latest effort to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to pass most legislation in the chamber.

Other senators who opposed the previous bill said they’d have to analyze Sanders’ new proposal. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said Sanders “knows” he wouldn’t vote for a $17 minimum wage bill. Read the full story from Diego Areas Munhoz.


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  • Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will deliver a briefing at 1 p.m.

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To contact the reporters on this story: Brandon Lee in Washington at blee@bgov.com; Giuseppe Macri in Washington at gmacri@bgov.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Kayla Sharpe at ksharpe@bloombergindustry.com

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