Focus on fate of $15 minimum wage in Senate as House prepares to take up Biden's $1.9 trillion relief bill

WASHINGTON - Lawmakers were awaiting a key ruling from Senate officials Wednesday on whether President Joe Biden's proposed $15-an-hour minimum wage can remain in his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill.

Top Senate aides from both parties huddled with the Senate parliamentarian Wednesday morning to advance arguments about whether the minimum wage increase would be allowable under the complex Senate rules that will govern consideration of the legislation.

A ruling from the parliamentarian was expected as soon as Wednesday evening or Thursday. Meanwhile House Democrats were preparing to advance the $1.9 trillion relief bill on Friday, and intend to include the minimum wage increase regardless of its ultimate fate in the Senate.

The minimum wage increase has emerged as a flashpoint, but it's just one piece of a wide-ranging piece of legislation that also includes a new round of $1,400 stimulus checks to individuals, an extension of emergency unemployment benefits, $130 billion for schools, $350 billion for cities and states, and tens of billions of dollars for vaccines, testing and help for the health-care system.

"I expect that the House Democratic Caucus is going to strongly support the American Rescue Plan. We remain hopeful that the $15 minimum wage increase, which takes place gradually over a period of four years, will be made in order," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, N.Y.

"The notion that we have people working for $7.25 an hour, which is the current federal minimum wage, is egregious in the context of all the wealth that exists in this country," Jeffries said.

The relief bill, which is Biden's first major legislative initiative, is looking unlikely to receive any Republican support. House Republican leaders slammed it Wednesday as a "$1.9 trillion liberal wish-list filled with extraneous provisions such as the minimum wage increase and a "bailout" to blue states such as California.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated recently that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025 would cost 1.4 million jobs and increase the deficit by $54 billion over 10 years, but it also would lift 900,000 people out of poverty.

"Who said a $15 minimum wage - that estimates say would kill over $50 billion in economic activity and jobs in America - has anything to do with covid?" asked House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La.

The $15 minimum wage increase faces two potential problems in the Senate. Democrats are pushing the relief bill forward under a "budget reconciliation" process that allows it to pass with a simple majority vote, instead of the 60 normally required.

That means no GOP support is necessary if the 50 members of the Senate Democratic Caucus hang together. If they do, Vice President Harris could break a tie in favor of the bill.

But under the rules of "budget reconciliation," provisions that increase deficits over the long term or don't have a significant budgetary impact, among other limitations, are not permitted. Many Democrats including Biden himself have suggested they don't think the minimum wage increase will meet certain of those criteria. That decision is up to the Senate parliamentarian, Elizabeth MacDonough.

Even if MacDonough were to determine the minimum wage hike could remain in the bill, two Senate Democrats - Joe Manchin III, W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) -- have indicated they oppose it, suggesting it won't have the votes to stay in the bill.

Manchin has suggested he would like to amend the bill to bring the minimum wage increase down to $11 an hour.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined to say Wednesday whether Biden would sign a bill with an $11 minimum wage instead of the $15 he initially opposed. Liberals including Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., are pushing hard for the $15-an-hour figure.

"The president proposed an increase in the minimum wage in his package, that's what he wants to be in the final package," said Psaki. "He also was in the Senate for 36 years and has great respect for the parliamentary process. We're gonna see that through. Once that's concluded we can all talk further about the next steps."