Democrats reintroduce $15 minimum wage bill with unified control of Congress, White House

Key Points
  • Democrats reintroduce the Raise the Wage Act, a bill that would increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2025.
  • The party has pushed for the measure to raise pay for essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic and combat racial and gender pay inequity.
  • House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and President Joe Biden all support the legislation.
  • The vast majority of Republicans have opposed the measure, and many small businesses worry it could hinder them while they struggle during the pandemic.
Protestors call for a $15 minimum wage outside of McDonald's corporate headquarters in Chicago on Jan. 15, 2021.
Scott Olson | Getty Images

Democrats in the House and Senate reintroduced a bill Tuesday to raise the U.S. minimum wage to $15 per hour, seeking fresh support for the policy during an economic crisis and with control of Congress and the White House.

The legislation would gradually hike the pay floor to $15 an hour nationwide by 2025, then tie future increases to median wage growth. The measure would also end pay below the minimum wage for tipped workers, along with certain teens and people with disabilities.

The party has long pushed to raise the federal minimum wage, which has stalled at $7.25 an hour since 2009. On Tuesday, the bill's sponsors said the effort has taken on more urgency as the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated racial inequity and left millions doing essential work for low pay.

"Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the $7.25 federal minimum wage was economically and morally indefensible," Rep. Bobby Scott, a Virginia Democrat and chair of the House Education and Labor Committee, said in a statement. "Now, the pandemic is highlighting the gross imbalance between the productivity of our nation's workers and the wages they are paid."

The Democratic-held House passed a version of the bill, known as the Raise the Wage Act, in 2019. It never saw a vote in the GOP-controlled Senate.

Here are both sides of the $15 minimum wage debate
Here are both sides of the $15 minimum wage debate

The power dynamics in Washington have since changed. Democrats hold a narrow majority in an evenly divided Senate, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., supports a $15 an hour minimum wage. So does President Joe Biden, who included the policy in his coronavirus relief package.

Still, if all Democrats supported the bill, the party would have to win over 10 skeptical Republicans to pass it in the Senate. It is unclear if Democrats could use budget reconciliation, a process that requires only a majority vote to pass bills but restricts what can go into the legislation, to approve a wage increase.

Incoming Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and $15 minimum wage champion, has pushed to use the tool as widespread GOP support for the bill appears doubtful.

"It clearly has to be done by reconciliation. That's something I'm working very hard on," he told The Guardian.

Opponents of a $15 pay floor have long contended Congress should not set a national standard because costs of living vary across the country. During the Covid pandemic, small business groups have said the policy would hurt companies scraping by with public health restrictions in place.

"More than doubling the minimum wage to $15 dollars per hour, expanding paid leave mandates, and creating new federal enforcement actions on small businesses will make it even harder for Main Street to survive," the National Federation of Independent Businesses said in a statement after Biden introduced his economic relief plan earlier this month.

The Raise the Wage Act would increase the pay floor to $9.50 an hour this year, then to $11 next year. The minimum wage would rise to $12.50 per hour in 2023, $14 in 2024 and then $15 in 2025.

The provision to index further increases to median wage growth aims to ensure the country will not go another decade without a higher minimum wage.

A $15 minimum wage has gained traction in pockets of the country. Eight states and Washington, D.C., have now approved increases to that threshold.

The latest was Florida, where more than 60% of voters in November supported a $15 pay floor. Democrats have cited the result, which came as more than 51% of voters in the state backed former President Donald Trump, as evidence for the policy's popularity.

Advocates have also noted the policy's potential to cut into racial and gender inequity. In cheering the Raise the Wage Act on Tuesday, the left-leaning think tank Economic Policy Institute said 23% of workers who would benefit from the policy are Black or Latina women.

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