Hamilton Journal News

Minimum wage hike all but dead in relief bill

- By Alan Fram

WASHINGTON — Democrats’ efforts to include a minimum wage increase in their $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill seemed all but dead Monday as Senate leaders prepared to begin debate on their own version of the House-passed aid package.

Top Democrats abandoned a potential amendment threatenin­g tax increases on big companies that don’t boost workers’ pay to certain levels, Senate aides said. Four days after the chamber’s parliament­arian said Senate rules forbid inclusion of a straightou­t minimum wage increase in the relief measure, Democrats seemed to have exhausted their most realistic options for quickly salvaging the pay hike.

“At this moment, we may not have path, but I hope we can find one” for pushing the federal pay floor to $15 an hour, said No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois.

Senate Democrats hope to unveil their version of the broad relief package and begin debate as early as Wednesday. Congressio­nal leaders want to send President Joe Biden the legislatio­n combating the pandemic and bolstering the economy by March 14, the date emergency jobless benefits that lawmakers approved in December expire.

The bill is Biden’s biggest early legislativ­e priority. It looms as an initial test of his ability to unite Democrats in the Senate — where the party has no votes to spare — and risks lasting damage to his influence should he fail. Republican­s are strongly against the legislatio­n and could well oppose it unanimousl­y, as House GOP lawmakers did when that chamber approved the bill early Saturday.

Biden discussed the relief bill Monday in a virtual meeting with nine Senate Democrats, including Joe Manchin of West Virginia, an opponent of the $15 hourly target. A White House statement said the group was “united in the goal of quickly passing a significan­t package that reflects the scope of the challenges our country is facing.”

The Senate is divided 50-50 between the parties, with Vice President Kamala Harris able to cast only tie-breaking votes. Under streamline­d rules the Democrats are using, they can approve the legislatio­n with just 51 votes.

Democrats are considerin­g several changes in the House measure, but they seem modest compared to dropping the minimum wage increase. One top aide said the bill the Senate initially debates won’t have the minimum wage provision in it, saying the language would have pushed the bill over budget-mandated spending limits, violating Senate rules.

Senate Democrats may reshape the $350 billion the bill provides for state and local government­s. They also might extend its fresh round of emergency unemployme­nt benefits, which would be $400 weekly, through September instead of August, as the House approved.

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