Just a month into his presidency, Joe Biden was poised to earn his first major legislative victory as the House prepared to pass his sweeping $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill—a package that has broad support among Americans, including an overwhelming percentage of Democrats and even some conservatives, who welcome the idea of another round of stimulus checks. “We could all use them,” one Trump voter told the New York Times Thursday.
But even amid that anticipated win, there was a twinge of disappointment. On Thursday, Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough issued a surprise decision that prohibited Democrats from including their proposed $15 minimum wage in the stimulus bill, claiming it violated the chamber’s budgetary rules. The ruling disappointed Biden and the Democrats and once again brought intra-party disputes about how best to implement their ambitious agenda to the fore. “We were elected to deliver for the people,” Rep. Ro Khanna wrote after MacDonough’s ruling. “It’s time we do our job.”
The House, where Khanna serves, will still include the minimum wage increase in the legislation it is expected to pass Friday. “House Democrats believe that the minimum wage hike is necessary,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Thursday. “Democrats in the House are determined to pursue every possible path in the Fight for 15.” But the parliamentarian’s verdict could make the long-sought increase a nonstarter in the upper chamber this time around, as the White House signals plans to find a different vehicle for the pay increase or to pass it later as a standalone bill. Though Biden was “disappointed” by MacDonough’s ruling, press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Thursday, “he respects the parliamentarian’s decision and the Senate’s process” and “will work with leaders in Congress to determine the best path forward.”
But some in his party don’t want to give up on including it in the American Rescue Plan. Some progressives, including Khanna and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, have demanded that Democratic leaders overrule MacDonough, and at least one—Congresswoman Ilhan Omar—has called for her to be replaced, which is not without precedent. “What’s a Democratic majority if we can’t pass our priority bills?” the Minnesota representative tweeted Thursday. “This is unacceptable.” Both options are likely to be viewed as too extreme by the Biden White House, but it may be more amenable to a workaround that Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders proposed Thursday. In a statement decrying MacDonough’s decision and the Senate’s “archaic and undemocratic rules,” the Vermont Independent announced he would be working on an amendment punishing companies that “don’t pay at least $15 an hour to provide small businesses with the incentives they need to raise wages…That amendment must be included in this reconciliation bill,” Sanders wrote.
It’s important to note that Democrats, with the apparent exception of Representatives Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, are united on the minimum wage issue. Where they differ, it seems, is the best path to get there. That’s not necessarily a minor disagreement. Biden obviously hasn’t been shy about enacting policies through executive action, but he has also spoken of a desire to compromise and so far hasn’t seemed willing to support process changes that would lessen the incentive to do so. For progressives like Omar, that appears to signal that Biden prioritizes outdated precedent—and a misguided belief that the party of Donald Trump will ever work with him—over delivering results for the American people. That dynamic has been at play in Democratic debates over eliminating the filibuster and will figure into future disagreements that arise as parts of their agenda hit roadblocks going forward.
The tension between Biden’s old-school, consensus-building politics and progressives’ more assertive approach could be a good thing: the president can bring establishment muscle to bold policies, while the left flank can force him to feel a greater sense of urgency to do so. The coalition has already found success; the impending passage of the COVID relief bill, in some form or another, is one of them. But as the minimum wage setback underscores, simply having a majority won’t be enough for them to do everything they want.
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