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The Battle Over a Federally Mandated Minimum Wage

On Saturday, the House of Representatives passed a stimulus package championed by President Joe Biden, which included aid to small businesses and $1400 checks to citizens earning less than $75,000. Notably, it also included a federally mandated minimum wage of $15 per hour. However, the Senate is expected to strip away the minimum wage section of the bill and return it to the House, because most senators don’t support it.

The filibuster essentially makes it so that 60 senators need to support a piece of legislation for it to pass, and not a single Republican senator is in support of the stimulus package as a whole, much less the minimum wage part of it. However, even without the filibuster, the section would still likely be removed, as two centrist Democrats, Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, don’t support it either.

Biden expressed a willingness to scrap the minimum wage, angering progressives who saw it as a core part of his campaign promise, even as most agreed that it was the only way for the stimulus package to have any likelihood of being passed. “Any person who thinks that a $15 minimum wage is the ‘crazy socialist agenda’ is living in a dystopian capitalist nightmare,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, noting that a recent poll showed that 63% of West Virginia residents (Manchin’s constituents) supported a $15 minimum wage.

Central to the disagreement is a debate over the effect of a minimum wage. Liberals argue that the primary impact is that the poorest workers are better-paid, while conservatives say that a mandated minimum wage forces firms to fire employees and therefore causes higher unemployment.

Even with the minimum wage section stripped, however, the package seems unlikely to pass. No Republican Representatives voted for it, and two Democrats voted against it. In the Senate, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already taken to skewering it, saying on Saturday, “Tonight House Democrats… jammed through a bill that even liberal economists and editorial boards say is not well targeted to this stage of the fight.”

Regardless of whether or not the package passes, however, the question of a federal minimum wage will remain a pressing political question. Many Republican and centrist senators are starting to support raising it in some form, just not as part of a covid relief package.

Trump loyalist Lindsey Graham said he is “open to increasing the minimum wage in a responsible way,” while populist Josh Hawley said he supports having it raised to $15 only for workers at companies who have $1 billion in sales. At least five other GOP senators, including former Republican presidential nominee and frequent Trump critic Mitt Romney, came out in favor of a bill that would raise it from its current $7.25 to $10. Manchin said he supports $11.

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