Democrats Form a Circular Firing Squad

With the minimum wage, it’s time for them to turn the heat up on Republicans—not each other.

On Thursday, when the Senate parliamentarian ruled against allowing a $15 minimum wage increase in the forthcoming pandemic relief bill, several congressional Democrats heatedly pressed their fellow Democrats, explicitly and implicitly, to overcome the decision with provocative action.

Congressman Ro Khanna demanded on Twitter that Vice President Kamala Harris overrule the parliamentarian, even though the White House Chief of Staff previously said she would not do that. Also on Twitter, Congressman Ilhan Omar called on Senate Democrats to “Abolish the Filibuster” and “Replace the Parliamentarian.” Senator Bernie Sanders said he would offer a relief bill amendment “to take tax deductions away from large, profitable corporations that don’t pay workers at least $15 an hour” as well as create incentives for small businesses to that same end. (Sens. Brian Schatz and Ron Wyden soon said they would support the Sanders amendment.)

What you do not see in these statements—nor do you in the official reactions to parliamentarian’s ruling from the White House, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—is any attempt to pressure Republicans, even though the only remaining path to a federal minimum wage increase is with 10 Senate Republicans joining the Democrats.

Instead, we see the makings of a good ol’ fashioned circular firing squad. Democrats are beginning to point fingers at the vice president for not overruling the parliamentarian. Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema get called out for not abolishing the filibuster, as well as for opposing a $15 minimum wage on the merits. (And perhaps not just those two; Sanders’ stand-alone $15 minimum wage bill is 12 short of 50 Democratic sponsors.) And considering that not every Senate Democrat supports a $15 minimum, at least not on the Vermonter’s four-year timeline, the proposed Sanders amendment to punish corporations who pay less than $15 an hour seems poised to provoke severe intra-party strife.

Why are Democrats squabbling, especially when their barest-of-margins hold on the Senate demands unity? Because many Democrats believe what Sanders believes about the likelihood of Republican cooperation: there is none. Earlier this week on MSNBC, Sanders said: “The only way that we are going to raise the minimum wage is through reconciliation or ending the filibuster. In my view, I do not see in the foreseeable future getting significant support from Republicans.” If you see no bipartisan path, you force yourself to pursue the partisan path, whatever the costs.

One can certainly understand being deeply skeptical of Republican cooperation and pursuing a partisan path, given the GOP’s failure to provide a single vote for Bill Clinton’s economic plan or Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. But after Manchin and Sinema ruled out junking the filibuster, the parliamentarian ruled the minimum wage had no place in a filibuster-proof “budget reconciliation” bill, and the White House ruled out using the Vice President to subdue the parliamentarian, the legislative strategies of Democratic congressional leaders, as well as progressive backbenchers, should be recalibrated. The bipartisan path might not be available, but now we know that the partisan path is not available.

Fortunately, a glimmer of hope can be found in the proposal from Republican Senator Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Rob Portman, Shelley Moore Capito, and Tom Cotton for a $10 federal minimum wage in four years, indexed to inflation. The bill also requires all employers to use the federal government’s “E-Verify” employment verification program, and prevent the hiring of undocumented immigrants. (Biden’s immigration bill proposes a commission to help improve employment verification but does not mandate employers use the federal program.)

A minimum wage of $10 is surely too low an opening bid for most Democrats to accept, but an opening bid is just that. Plus, there is some history on the side of bipartisanship. While we have had only two federal minimum wage increases in the last three decades, those two were both grudgingly bipartisan, with small business tax breaks helping to win reluctant Republican support. George W. Bush signed one of them. Such a compromise may again be possible. The unknowns are whether Democrats and these five Republicans can meet in the middle on wage level, timeframe, and other provisions, and then whether another five Republicans can be brought on board. But compare the unknowns with the knowns: the positions of Manchin, Sinema, the White House, and the parliamentarian.

Of course, a successful bargain may not materialize. But if Democrats began putting pressure on Republicans now over a popular minimum wage hike, and negotiations do fail, then it will be easier for the more generous Democrats to affix the blame to the more miserly Republicans.

On the other hand, if Democrats continue to suggest they can take care of any minimum wage increase themselves—even at this point when they almost surely can not—then the inevitable failure rests solely on their own shoulders. Even worse, if Democrats bicker over controversial proposals during the pandemic relief bill legislative process, they risk taking the focus off the bill’s wildly popular elements—most prominently, the $1400 checks, which garnered 79 percent support in a recent YouGov poll. Turning a consensus bill into a controversial one would be political malpractice.

A $15 minimum wage may not be quite as popular as government checks—it registered at 56 percent in the YouGov poll. But state ballot initiatives for minimum wage increases of varying degrees have proven very popular, even in deep red states including Alaska, Arkansas, Missouri and South Dakota. Just last November, Florida voters enacted a plan for a $15 minimum by 2026. So, by putting pandemic relief and minimum wage on separate legislative tracks, Democrats could force votes on each and really turn the screws on Republicans.

Biden appeared to grasp the potential of separation by calmly preparing fellow Democrats for an unfavorable parliamentarian ruling, and assuring they could still win a wage increase after the relief bill passes. Biden is playing chess. Other Democrats are checkmating themselves.

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Bill Scher

Bill Scher is the host of the history podcast "When America Worked" and the co-host of bipartisan online show and podcast "The DMZ"