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COVID-19 Relief Package Heads To Senate As Debate Over Minimum Wage Continues

Senate Budget Committee Chair Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had sought an alternate proposal to include an increase in the federal minimum wage in President Biden's COVID-19 relief bill.
Susan Walsh
Senate Budget Committee Chair Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had sought an alternate proposal to include an increase in the federal minimum wage in President Biden's COVID-19 relief bill.

The Senate takes up President Biden's $1.9 trillion coronavirus aid package this week, following a largely party-line House vote early Saturday morning.

Democrats are using a process to avoid a Republican filibuster in the Senate that leaves them no room for error in the divided 50-50 chamber.

Pushing Biden's plan through budget reconciliation allows Democrats to approve it more quickly and without Republican support. But it also means there are limits regarding what can be in the package, because of rules dictating how policies affecting spending, taxes and the debt are considered. Democratic leaders need to keep their caucus unified and will count on Vice President Harris to break a tie, since no GOP lawmakers in the House voted for the bill, and none are expected to back it in the Senate.

Potential efforts to try to push businesses to boost the minimum wage, or any changes to tax credits or other elements, mean the bill may pingpong back to the House, since any changes to the package would require another vote.

The complicated legislative maneuvers come with the clock ticking. Democratic leaders and the White House want the final bill to be enacted by the president by March 14, which is when current enhanced unemployment benefits expire.

The bill includes $1,400 direct payments to millions of qualifying Americans, funds for vaccine distribution, money for state and local governments, an expanded child tax credit, rental assistance, food aid and more help for small businesses.

Many liberal Democrats say abandoning the push for a minimum wage hike as part of this package would be a mistake, so the White House is working to highlight the other major components it says are essential to put into place now, as the country continues to struggle with the economic fallout of the pandemic.

Four dynamics to watch with the bill:

1. Uncertainty over effort to raise the minimum wage continues

The Senate parliamentarian ruled Thursday that the $15 an hour federal minimum wage increase could not be included in the Senate bill because of the limits that are part of budget reconciliation. House Democrats kept the provision in their bill despite that development, but it's expected to be stripped out as the Senate debates the bill this week.

The ruling by the parliamentarian was not released publicly, and progressives immediately blasted it. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said members told constituents they would push to pass a bill to increase wages, and "we can't tell them this didn't get one because of an unelected parliamentarian." She and other liberal Democrats vowed to mount a fight, or even try to oust the parliamentarian. Senate Democratic leaders and the White House indicated they would respect the ruling but continue to look to get the increase through another legislative route.

The budget reconciliation process limits items that can be included to policies impacting the federal ledger. A minimum wage hike likely ran afoul of the rules because it directly influences the bottom line for businesses and the economy, but not the federal budget.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., initially said he was reviewing a plan to add a new provision to the package that penalizes large corporations what don't pay their workers at least a $15 per hour minimum wage, but a senior Democratic aide told NPR that Democrats are abandoning that effort.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., immediately pressed for that strategy — a sign that Democrats were readying a backup plan. Now that they have decided not to press for it, it's unclear whether another proposal will emerge, or if Democrats will have to press for the wage hike in stand-alone legislation. But even if Democrats in the House pass such a bill, it does not have enough support to overcome a GOP filibuster in the Senate.

Republican Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah and Tom Cotton of Arkansas are pushing a proposal to increase the minimum wage to $10 per hour, but they include a requirement that businesses use an E-Verify program that reviews workers to make sure they are not undocumented. It is not expected to get any traction, but is a sign that some elements of the GOP view the need to address the issue of the wide wage gap in the country.

2. Centrists remain key players

The move forcing Democrats to remove the federal minimum wage hike from the package actually helps Schumer keep his caucus united. Moderates like Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona could feel more comfortable backing the bill without the hurdle of the minimum wage issue.

Some centrists from both parties have voiced concerns about the size of the package and suggested some items like direct payments should be more targeted, but there is no sign yet that those issues were deal-breakers for the Democrats in terms of getting to a yes vote.

In an evenly divided chamber, any one senator can wield influence and press for a pet issue or program that specifically has an impact in their state. As the package moves to the floor and senators from both parties press for amendments, potentially to how the tax credits are structured, that could change those items that many House Democrats insist should stay as is. The parliamentarian can also rule that some items aren't within the scope of the reconciliation process. There is already tension from progressives who complain that moderates shouldn't be given an outsized role in shaping policies that Biden campaigned and won on in 2020.

3. The package is likely to pass Congress entirely with Democratic votes

Democrats are convinced that Republicans are making a risky bet putting up a wall of opposition to the relief bill. Several recent polls indicate that 7 in 10 Americans support the $1.9 trillion plan, and in some cases a majority of Republican voters back the legislation. White House officials point to GOP mayors and other state officials who say the economic devastation from the pandemic demands a bold federal response.

"We're moving ahead with a bill that probably will get no Republican votes in the Senate, but will have broad Republican support in the country," Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons said on CNN on Sunday.

Many congressional Republicans see an opening politically to tag the package as "corrupt" or stuffed with "pet projects." They think pointing out hundreds of millions of dollars on items they argue aren't directly related to the pandemic, such as improvements to the transit system in Northern California, or tax credits that wouldn't go into effect until next year, could cause Democrats in swing states or purple House districts heartburn heading into the 2022 midterm elections.

They have focused mainly on the issue of schools in many districts that are still closed, and the need to make that the focus of any bill. There are resources for state and local governments in the Democrats' package to support schools to get back to in-person learning in areas that are still struggling. House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy said the bill should be far smaller in size, targeted to get kids in classrooms full time and get mental health resources to those children suffering from learning largely virtually over the last year.

Ohio GOP Sen. Rob Portman, one of 10 Republicans who met with Biden about crafting a relief bill, acknowledged that direct payments are popular but argued in an interview on Sunday on ABC's This Week, that more than half of the $1.9 trillion proposal won't be spent in 2021, citing a study by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. "So how could it be about COVID relief? No one expects a year from now that we'll be in the COVID crisis that we're in now, so, it just doesn't make any sense," Portman said.

4. The fight over getting rid of the filibuster is likely to crank up, fueled by frustrated progressives

The limitations that budget reconciliation put on the COVID-19 relief bill reignited the push from those on the left to eliminate the legislative filibuster. Getting 10 Republicans to consider backing a relief bill proved too high a hurdle, so the notion that Democrats could attract support from enough to reach the 60-vote threshold on things like a multitrillion-dollar infrastructure package, climate change legislation, gun control bills or other major priorities would likely be much tougher, if not impossible.

Leading progressives like Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren tweeted their frustrations shortly after the ruling on the minimum wage, and maintained the Senate rules need to change.

Sens. Manchin and Sinema remain opposed to ending the filibuster, and there could be other Democrats who would vote against a rules change, so leaders don't have the votes now to make the move, and Biden is largely staying out of the debate.

But if the president's legislative agenda continues to be stymied by a strict partisan split, the political pressure will mount on Democratic leaders to reconsider whether they can convince the caucus that the only way to get policy priorities through is to change how the chamber works.

NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis contributed to this report

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Deirdre Walsh is the congress editor for NPR's Washington Desk.