WASHINGTON – President Biden’s agenda faces its greatest test as Democrats prepare to maneuver his $ 1.9 trillion stimulus package through the equally-divided Senate. This could strain the fragile alliance between progressives and centrists and the limits of its power in Congress.
An early morning House vote to pass the comprehensive pandemic relief measure only underscored the depth of partisan divide over the proposal, which was rejected by every Republican. However, the path in the Senate is far more bumpy. A thicket of arcane rules and one-vote control threatens to jeopardize vital aspects of the plan as the Democrats rush to deliver it to Mr Biden’s desk within two weeks.
Mr Biden’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage under the plan to $ 15 an hour by 2025 is already due to budgetary rules for the measure, which the Democrats are pushing forward in a complex process that allows them to be voted by a simple majority to adopt, run aground vote bypassing the Republican opposition.
In the coming week, they will also face challenges in navigating other aspects of the bill through procedural obstacles and political pitfalls, including debates about how much to spend on closing state and local budget deficits and how to expand tax benefits should be distributed to help impoverished families.
The challenge for Mr Biden will be to hold both sides together in the face of the unitary Republican opposition to obtain a bill that White House officials believe will cushion vulnerable Americans until the pandemic ends and keep the economy pumping as it reopens will bring.
“We have no time to waste,” said Mr Biden at the White House on Saturday. “If we act decisively, quickly and courageously now, we can finally be one step ahead of this virus.”
The progressives are pushing for party leaders to change Senate rules to keep the wage increase in the bill, arguing that the Democrats must not scale back their ambitions for Mr Biden’s first major legislative package.
The debate over the minimum wage, New York Democrat Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told reporters, “sets the stage for how effective we will be for the remainder of the term in office.”
Moderates, including Senators Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, want to keep the Senate rules – which effectively require 60 votes to drive most major laws – intact and oppose such a large increase in the minimum wage in the package .
Party leaders and White House officials remain confident that Mr Biden will have the vote, regardless of the fate of the wage increase. All but two House Democrats voted for the legislation, the American rescue plan, which is supported by non-partisan voters. But Congressional Republicans came to an agreement against it after being effectively frozen in the process of drafting the bill.
“The House partisan vote reflects a deliberately partisan process and a missed opportunity to meet the needs of Americans,” Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, said in a statement.
The measure now goes to the Senate, which is split 50 to 50, with Vice President Kamala Harris controlling the decisive vote. Mr. Biden’s early attempts to find common ground with moderate Republican senators on the package resulted in only general expressions of bipartisan aspirations. Republicans proposed a plan that is less than a third of what the president is asking to tackle the toll of a crisis that has left 10 million Americans jobless.
With unemployment benefits for workers laid off longest in the crisis to expire on March 14, Democrats only have two weeks to finalize the package in the Senate and resend it to Mr Biden’s house and desk . As party leaders have chosen to use a swift budget process known as reconciliation to move swiftly through legislation and bypass the Republican opposition in the Senate, the bill must adhere to a number of tough budget rules along the way.
While the House added the federal minimum wage hike to the version passed on Saturday, a key Senate official warned that it violates the reconciliation rules so Republicans can appeal and remove it from the package. It is likely that further changes to the bill will be needed to ensure that it complies with Senate rules and can enlist the support of any Democrat.
Senate Democrats are now spending the weekend figuring out possible ways to save the minimum wage regime, which would gradually raise the minimum wage to $ 15 by 2025.
House progressives warned Friday that they could withhold their votes for the stimulus package if the wage increase were canceled. The debate has fueled an already simmering argument over whether Democrats should seek to overturn Senate rules, especially those governing filibusters, which mandate a 60-vote threshold to move forward and which the minority party has long used to Block important legislative initiatives.
“This is not about whether you have the votes – it is about whether you will do what you said,” said Rev. William J. Barber II, co-chair of Campaign of the Poor, a grassroots organization who plans to continue lobbying for Ms Harris to force a vote on the merits of the Parliamentary judgment and for Mr Manchin, Ms Sinema and other lawmakers to help take the procedural steps necessary to make the minimum wage law law . “Don’t hide behind a rule. Don’t hide behind a backdoor meeting.”
Mr Biden has publicly acknowledged that the wage increase could fall off the bill and stated that he would sign the package regardless. His chief of staff Ron Klain ruled out the possibility that Mrs. Harris would override the leadership of Senate MP Elizabeth MacDonough, who said the proposal was out of order under the reconciliation. Top Democrats have signaled they have no plans to oust Ms. MacDonough, who became the first woman to hold the post in 2012 despite liberal demands.
However, White House business officials argue that even increasing wages to $ 9.50 this year, as called for in the bill, would boost the incomes and spending of the worst-paid workers in the economy and fuel economic growth.
Democrats have begun devising alternative plans – including tax penalties for large companies that pay low hourly wages – that could qualify under Senate rules and achieve similar goals. Top Democrats, including New York City Senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, are considering adding an amendment to penalize companies paying less than $ 15 an hour, potentially creating an escalating tax on wages and salaries Pay slips from large companies are collected.
Party leaders say they will find a middle ground that will allow the stimulus package to move forward.
“We agree that we are here to do the work for the American people,” Californian spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi said at a press conference on Friday. When asked if Democrats would ultimately be able to pass the legislation without incorporating the minimum wage rule, she said, “Absolutely.”
Democrats are preparing for additional legislative revisions resulting from Ms. MacDonough’s guidance, including changing how quickly people can take advantage of an extended tax credit to help low-income families with children. Also, with some moderate Democrats in favor of elements of the relief plan, they may be forced to reduce or otherwise change the distribution of the $ 350 billion allocated to state, local, and tribal governments.
Republicans face their own dangers in opposing the measure en masse. The bill has strong and bipartisan support from national polls, with seven in ten Americans voting in favor. Most polls show that Republican voters are heavily supportive of the effort. Some show mostly Republican support.
Critical provisions of the bill that Republican lawmakers have ridiculed as wasteful – including direct payments of $ 1,400 per adult per child to individuals earning up to $ 75,000 per year and couples earning up to $ 150,000 per year – are reduced by up to four supported by five Americans.
Corporate groups and budget hawks have struck a middle ground and asked the Democrats to push back or change the package in the Senate. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has called for a bipartisan compromise to raise wages to less than $ 15 an hour. The US Travel Association on Saturday called on lawmakers to take additional steps in the bill to support an industry that “lost half a trillion dollars and millions of jobs over the past year” – with no immediate recovery in sight .
The Federal Responsible Budget Committee, which has raised concerns about the size of the package and the direction of its spending, has urged lawmakers to cut the $ 350 billion given to state and local governments and reduce the number of Americans who do so do receive direct payments to avoid sending money to people who haven’t lost hours or income during the crisis.
But without the majority stake required to eliminate the filibuster in the Senate, some Democrats see negotiations with Republicans as the only way to get a minimum wage increase into law.
“Not the answer we were hoping for, but the lawyer answer I expected,” said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat of Rhode Island. wrote on Twitter the rejection of the minimum wage regulation by the parliamentarian, which he called “within limits”.
“Now we have to do it the hard, old-fashioned way,” he added.