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Progressives Vow to Fight Manchin and Sinema Holding Up Stimulus Over $15 Wage

Centrist Democrats want to gut the wage hike, but progressives have more power than ever in Congress.

Sen. Bernie Sanders heads to the senate chamber in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on February 13, 2021.

On Wednesday, Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough is set to meet with Democrats and Republicans as they argue their case on whether or not to keep the $15 federal minimum wage proposal in the stimulus. MacDonough’s decision, which could come soon after the meeting, on what’s known as the “Byrd rule” will determine whether or not the minimum wage hike will live in the stimulus bill or whether it will have to be a separate bill (and subject to the filibuster).

But the Byrd rule isn’t the only hurdle that advocates of the $15 minimum wage will have to jump if MacDonough approves the provision for reconciliation. Progressives advocating for the wage hike will have to fight their own party, as centrist senators Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) are resistant to the proposal.

Sinema this month told Politico that the wage increase is “not appropriate” to include in the stimulus bill — mostly because she’s a big fan of the filibuster that many Democrats and progressives have been advocating to abolish. “I want to restore the 60-vote threshold for all elements of the Senate’s work,” she said.

Manchin said on Monday that, if the parliamentarian rules favorably toward keeping the wage increase, he would fight to lower it to $11 instead. He argues that that benchmark is more reasonable for his home state of West Virginia.

Progressives, however, aren’t willing to compromise on the wage hike. On Tuesday, Politico reported that progressive House representatives and aides to budget chair Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) say that they’re ready to fight a compromise that might come from the center on the minimum wage. Sanders hinted at this when he was asked about the wage hike on Monday, saying “I think we’re going to pass it as it is.”

As progressives gain more power and influence than ever in modern politics, staying steadfast on the $15 minimum wage is a flex of that power. And, with Joe Biden in agreement on the wage hike — though he may not be as ready to fight for it as progressives seem to be — it seems that the two centrist senators are the ones holding the stimulus package hostage with their opposition to the long-awaited hike to the minimum wage.

Progressives like Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-New York) have raised their objections to the two centrist Democrats’ stance. In response to Manchin wanting to greatly lower the minimum wage hike, Jones tweeted: “This is unacceptable. The $15 minimum wage is overwhelmingly popular with the American people. One person should not be allowed to hold relief hostage.”

Progressives have also disputed Manchin’s claim that the lower wage hike would be better for his state, as some pointed to an Economic Policy Institute (EPI) report, which says that the minimum wage hike proposal would help lift the wages of about 255,000 workers in West Virginia and would especially benefit people of color. Others pointed out that, in 2014, Manchin supported a raise of the federal minimum wage to $10.10 by 2016. In seven years, his ambitions only grew by less than a dollar.

Currently, the federal minimum wage is $7.25. It has not been raised for nearly 12 years, the longest it has remained stagnant. In the meantime, the cost of living has gone up by nearly 20 percent across the country.

Research from MIT says that a living wage in Manchin’s state is closer to $15 an hour than $11 — $13.93 an hour is what the MIT report says someone without kids needs to earn just to survive in West Virginia, which also ranks 15th in terms of lowest average costs of living in the country. On average, according to the same MIT research, a living wage for a single adult in the U.S. was $15.41 per hour in 2020. That number goes up each year and multiplies for individuals with children.

Many progressive advocates have been critical of the current $15 an hour proposal, saying that it doesn’t go far enough. The current version of the wage hike in the stimulus bill slowly hikes up the wage until it reaches $15 an hour in 2024, which some have said is too late. They also point out that, if wages had kept up with the rate of productivity, it would be over $24 an hour today.