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The $15 Minimum Wage Isn’t Dead. Here’s How Democrats Can Still Get It Done.

When the Senate parliamentarian ruled against GOP tax cuts in 2001, Republicans fired him and passed the cuts anyway.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders listens during a hearing on Capitol Hill on February 25, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

On Thursday, the Senate parliamentarian dealt a blow to Democratic and progressives hopes of passing a $15 federal minimum wage in the upcoming stimulus package, ruling that it did not fit under the budget reconciliation process. Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), however, a longtime champion of the $15 minimum wage, came prepared with a plan B.

Shortly after the ruling, Sanders announced a proposal to take away tax deductions from big corporations that don’t pay their workers at least $15 an hour and provide small businesses with incentives to raise their employees’ wages. The Vermont senator wants to put this scheme in Biden’s stimulus package, which the House is scheduled to vote on on Friday — though the House version still has the $15 minimum wage that the parliamentarian struck out.

“I strongly disagree with tonight’s decision by the Senate Parliamentarian,” Sanders said in a statement. “Because of the archaic and undemocratic rules of the Senate we are unable to move forward to end starvation wage in this country and raise the income of 32 million struggling Americans. That fight continues.” He vowed to work with Democratic colleagues to figure out alternative ways to work in the minimum wage increase.

President Joe Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and many other Democratic lawmakers have expressed their disappointment with the parliamentarian’s decision.

Sanders apparently has Schumer’s ear on the issue, and other top Democrats are evidently looking into the proposal, including Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Oregon).

Progressives are urging Vice President Kamala Harris to disregard the parliamentarian’s rule and allow for a reconciliation vote on the wage hike anyway. Representatives Ro Khanna (D-California) and Pramila Jayapal (D-Washington) pointed out that the Constitution doesn’t grant the parliamentarian any power — rather, the parliamentarian is essentially an advisory role.

Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, however, has said that Harris will “certainly” not do that, adding to progressives’ frustrations.

There is another procedural route that Democrats could take to keep the $15 minimum wage in the bill: They could simply fire the parliamentarian and replace her — a move that Republicans took in 2001 when they tried to push through a series of George W. Bush’s tax cuts. The parliamentarian at the time ruled that the tax cuts couldn’t be considered under reconciliation. Congress was, like today, split 50-50, so the Republicans, sensitive to their narrow majority, dismissed him and pushed through the tax cuts anyway.

This idea has some support in Congress: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) suggested the replacement of the parliamentarian on Thursday. “Abolish the filibuster. Replace the parliamentarian,” Omar tweeted. “What’s a Democratic majority if we can’t pass our priority bills? This is unacceptable.”

Omar raises yet another way that Democrats could pass a wage raise without Republican support: abolishing the filibuster. Budget reconciliation, after all, was created as a way to avoid the filibuster, and Democrats and progressives have been calling to get rid of it for years. If the filibuster is abolished, Democrats could introduce the $15 minimum wage as a separate bill and pass it through with their simple majority.

This option is the most far-fetched, since centrist Democrats like Senators Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Arizona) have not only come out against the $15 minimum wage but also against the abolition of the filibuster. However, progressives argue that abolishing the filibuster is also crucial to a huge portion of the rest of the Democratic and progressive agendas like Medicare for All and taking bold steps to address the climate crisis.

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