WASHINGTON — President Biden’s goal of increasing the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour was dealt a likely fatal blow Thursday when a Senate official ruled the policy cannot be contained in the upcoming COVID-19 aid bill.
It is Biden’s first major policy defeat, and a sign of how much difficulty he will have passing his agenda through the Senate, where on most votes he will need to win over at least 10 Republicans. Not a single Republican backed his push to gradually raise the federal minimum wage, which has been $7.25 since 2009, to $15 by 2025.
Democrats do have one tool to get around Republican obstruction — passing a budget bill, through a process called reconciliation, that cannot be filibustered and thus can pass if all 50 Democratic senators support it.
The catch is that these bills can only contain items related to the budget. Democrats had sought to include raising the minimum wage as a budget item, but Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, a nonpartisan official who decides what legislation is eligible to be included in a reconciliation bill, on Thursday ruled that it cannot be included.
That is likely the death knell for a federal minimum wage increase. Technically, Democrats could appeal the ruling and overturn the parliamentarian, but that is extremely unlikely. It would take just a single Democrat to break ranks for the plan to fall apart. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin holds the seat of former senator Robert Byrd, whom the rules are named after, and has insisted he would uphold them.
Manchin and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema had also said they opposed raising the minimum wage, which could have killed the policy even if the parliamentarian hadn’t. The White House had said it was continuing to talk to those senators to try to win them over.
In a statement Thursday night, the White House said Biden was disappointed in the ruling but will respect the parliamentarian’s decision.
“He will work with leaders in Congress to determine the best path forward because no one in this country should work full time and live in poverty,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said.
Democrats will still be able to pass about $1.9 trillion of aid in their COVID bill. That bill includes a new round of direct checks to Americans of up to $1,400 each, a $400-per-week federal top-up of unemployment insurance support through the end of August, a child tax credit worth up to $3,600 per year, as well as billions of dollars for schools, nationwide vaccinations, and state and local governments.