Stimulus Package Will Test Limit of Progressive Power As Senate Fight Looms

The power of progressive Democrats in Congress faces a test this week as the COVID-19 relief bill advances in the House of Representatives.

President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion package is being pushed through using budget reconciliation and the deal was approved by the House Budget Committee on Monday.

The American Rescue Plan is set to be voted on by the House this week. It includes $1,400 stimulus checks and an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The $15 wage is a key goal for progressives, but is proving contentious with Republicans who question how it could impact businesses.

"It was the No. 1 priority for progressives," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus, according to the Associated Press.

Democrats have a slender majority in both chambers of Congress. In the House, the majority is 10 and there is not likely to be enough opposition to block the package there.

The situation is trickier in the Senate. The upper chamber is split 50-50, with 48 Democrats plus two independents who caucus with them and 50 Republicans. In tiebreak situations, Vice President Kamala Harris casts the deciding vote.

Using budget reconciliation, Democrats would be able to push the bill through with no Republican support as it requires only a simple majority.

This, however, relies on every member of its caucus falling in line. Two Senate Democrats have already questioned the minimum wage proposal: Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Sinema has suggested the $15 plan is "not appropriate for the reconciliation process."

"It is not a budget item," she told Politico. "And it shouldn't be in there."

Sinema's point relates to the Byrd Rule, which says reconciliation cannot be used to pass measures that fall outside the scope of the federal budget. The Senate parliamentarian, a non-partisan officer who advises the chamber, will decide whether the minimum wage proposal complies with the rule.

Senator Bernie Sanders has said he is "confident" the Senate parliamentarian will allow the measure. President Biden, however, has said he does not expect this, "because of the rules of the United States Senate."

Manchin has previously said he aimed to "defend the Byrd Rule."

If the Senate parliamentarian allows the proposal, Democrats may still struggle to reach the vote tally they need.

"There are two issues going on right now—one is Byrd Rule problems, one is whip problems," House Budget Chair John Yarmuth (D-KY) told Politico.

"If Joe Manchin isn't going to vote for it because of the minimum wage, I assume we have to take it out or compromise in a way that he would accept," Yarmuth said.

Manchin has suggested that he would be open to the minimum wage rising to $11 an hour, arguing that this would be reasonable in his home state.

Such a compromise may irk progressives, who have questioned why they are the ones being urged to shift their positions.

Biden has expressed willingness to compromise on points of his stimulus plan in a bid for bipartisan support. This included a shift in the eligibility criteria for stimulus checks, though not a reduction in the $1,400 figure—drawing fire from progressives.

The criteria have so far remained unchanged from previous payments, despite calls for the income thresholds to be lowered. Progressives continue to oppose this.

Newsweek has contacted the White House and the lawmakers mentioned for comment.

bernie sanders at the capitol
Bernie Sanders arrives at the U.S. Capitol on February 11. The Vermont senator believes a minimum wage increase to $15 can be included in the budget reconciliation process. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images