Minimum wage hike out of order for COVID relief bill, Senate parliamentarian rules

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The Senate parliamentarian concluded Thursday that a federal minimum wage hike to $15 per hour would run afoul of chamber rules if Democrats include it in their $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package.

The ruling is a blow to liberal Democrats, who have insisted that the $15-per-hour level be included in the legislation.

Senate Democrats could try to overrule the parliamentarian, but White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said that wasn’t in the cards.

“We’re going to honor the rules of the Senate and work within that system to get this bill passed,” Mr. Klain said on MSNBC.

The Congressional Budget Office had calculated that a $15 minimum wage, when fully phased in by 2025, would sap 1.4 million jobs from the economy, though it would also raise wages for more than 25 million and lift 900,000 above the poverty line.

Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth McDonough was playing referee under what’s known as the “Byrd Rule,” a 1980s construct of then-Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat and master of Senate procedures. The rule requires that anything done under the cover of the budget must be central to the country’s fiscal situation.

Extraneous provisions can be struck by the motion of a single senator, and it requires 60 votes to waive the rule — the same threshold as a filibuster.

Debates over what is extraneous can grow heated, and Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernard Sanders of Vermont and fellow Democrats have been lobbying Ms. McDonough to make their case.

To bolster his case, Mr. Sanders had the CBO prepare a report that found the wage hike would affect a wide range of government budget functions.

Specifically, the wage increase affected more of the budget than drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge or eliminating the Obamacare individual mandate tax penalty. Both of those policies were allowed in Republicans’ 2017 tax cut bill, which was also passed through reconciliation, and Mr. Sanders had argued that should pave the way for the wage hike to be allowed this year.

Even without the parliamentarian’s ruling, a $15 wage hike is in trouble.

In a Senate divided 50-50, with the GOP seemingly unified against a $15 rate, all Democrats would have to back the plan, with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris putting the policy over the top.

But Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat, has signaled he is not comfortable with the $15 rate and has floated a hike to $11 instead. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Arizona Democrat, is also not on board the $15 wage, according to liberal activist groups who are now targeting her with a pressure campaign.

On the right, meanwhile, Republican Sens. Tom Cotton and Mitt Romney this week proposed a $10 minimum wage, which would be tied to the approval of nationwide mandatory use of E-Verify, the government’s currently voluntary system for vetting new hires to make sure they are in the country legally and authorized to work.

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