Sen. Bernie Sanders has never been closer to achieving a $15 an hour federal minimum wage, with the Senate possibly voting on a budget reconciliation bill in the coming weeks.
Sanders continued his push on Wednesday, calling the current $7.25 an hour “starvation wages.”
“The overwhelming majority of the American people understand that we must end starvation wages in America,” Sanders tweeted. “That means raising the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour by 2025. Period.”
Sanders has long been at the forefront of the minimum wage fight. One of his first pieces of legislation, introduced in 1993, was the Liveable Wage Act, which would have increased the minimum wage based on the cost of living. The bill never received a vote, but he reintroduced it in 1995, 1997, and 1999 and in 2013 proposed a $10.10 federal minimum wage.
Sanders announced his first $15 an hour wage legislation in July 2015 at a Good Jobs Nation protest with federal contract workers who were demonstrating for better wages and pro-union executive orders from President Barack Obama.
Sanders made a $15 minimum wage a central part of his 2016 presidential campaign, and though Hilary Clinton won the nomination, Sanders’s propensity for bringing “radical” ideas into the mainstream left a notable mark on the Democratic Party’s platform.
During Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, the Democratic Party platform stated that it would “raise the minimum wage, and index it to inflation.” What the wage would be raised to went unmentioned, and the party failed to pass any legislation.
But in 2016, the party shifted its stance and stated that Congress “should raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour over time and index it,” adding that the party also supported “creating one fair wage for all workers by ending the subminimum wage for tipped workers and people with disabilities” — a dramatic shift from the 2012 platform.
The party platform under then-Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden also included a commitment to raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2026, and while it dropped stipulations of indexing the wage in the future, it included a commitment to “guarantee equal pay for women.”
Sanders’s support for a wage hike extends beyond legislation — he has tweeted support for a number of worker strikes and in 2019 joined a University of California Los Angeles picket line protesting for better wages and fair contract negotiations.
Last week, the House Education and Labor Committee completed a markup of its portion of the budget reconciliation bill, and after more than 13 hours of debate, a measure that would gradually increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next five years was approved.
A finalized reconciliation bill is expected for a vote on the House floor the week of Feb. 22, after which it will be sent to the Senate, where it faces an uphill battle.
Republicans are generally opposed to increasing the federal minimum wage, preferring to leave decision-making to state and local governments — some states and localities already have a $15 minimum wage or have passed legislation to get there in the coming years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Because of Socialist Senator Sanders’ ever rising influence in the Democratic Party, what was once a radical, far-Left proposal,—a federally mandated $15 minimum wage that would cost Iowans’ jobs and destroy small businesses during a global pandemic—is now a mainstream policy position supported by President Biden and rank-and-file Democrats alike,” Sen. Joni Ernst told the Washington Examiner.
As it turns out, it’s not just Democrats — in a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, two-thirds of the public said that they supported raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, including 43% of Republicans. And an Ipsos poll conducted in August 2020 found that 62% of Republican respondents supported raising the federal minimum wage generally, though the poll did not ask about an increase to $15 an hour.
While Democrats hold a slim majority in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tiebreaking 51st vote needed to pass reconciliation legislation, they would need unanimous support of the Democratic caucus, and at least two Democratic senators have expressed opposition to a $15 minimum wage, citing the potential negative consequences on states that have not raised their minimum wage above the federal level.
A report from the Congressional Budget Office suggested that move could cost as many as 1.4 million jobs — though it would also lift nearly 1 million people above the poverty line.
“This policy is a longstanding goal of Bernie and the left, and they are understandably keen to get victories early in the Congress,” American Enterprise Institute’s Ryan Bourne told the Washington Examiner. “But all economic focus now should be on ending the pandemic through a rapid vaccination of the population.”
The wage hike also faces the Senate’s Byrd Rule, which limits budget reconciliation legislation only to items that do not “increase net outlays or decrease revenue during a fiscal year,” according to a rules summary.
Though Biden said that he didn’t think the wage hike was “going to survive” in the Senate, and White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that he would not ask Harris to circumvent the Byrd Rule, the president reaffirmed his support for the wage hike during a Tuesday town hall hosted by CNN.
“I do support a $15 minimum wage,” Biden said. “I think there is equally as much, if not more, evidence to dictate that it would grow the economy and, long-run and medium-run, benefit small businesses as well as large businesses. And it would not have such a dilatory effect.”