Why a $15 Minimum Wage May Not Make It Into COVID-19 Relief Package

President Joe Biden wants Congress to pass its first minimum wage hike in more than a decade in the next coronavirus relief package. However, rules that limit what lawmakers can put in a single measure may ultimately stop his $15-per-hour proposal from being lumped in with stimulus checks, money for schools, and other ideas he's pushing.

The U.S. Senate is still awaiting guidance on whether the minimum wage increase falls outside of the scope allowed under what's known as the "Byrd rule," as the slim Democratic majority is pursuing a route to pass the next COVID-19 relief bill through a procedural move that allows a simple majority instead of the 60 votes normally needed.

Under the Byrd rule, the shortcut, formally known as reconciliation, can't be used to pass measures that fall outside the scope of the federal budget. The decision is left to the Senate parliamentarian, a non-partisan officer who advises the chamber.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters Thursday that Democratic leaders had hoped to have an answer by now of whether the minimum wage hike will be allowed, but they haven't gotten word.

"If it isn't, we have other places to do it," she said.

However, leaders already are signaling that the idea might be dropped from the final proposal because of the procedural requirement. If lawmakers had the 60 votes needed under a normal path to passage, then the issue would be moot.

Pelosi, along with U.S. Senate Budget Chair Bernie Sanders and other top Democrats, were quoted in a news release last week announcing the Raise the Wage Act of 2021, which would increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2025.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer told Newsweek and other reporters during a call Wednesday that the leadership backs Biden's proposal—but ultimately it will be up to the Senate's guidance whether the stimulus bill changes the minimum wage.

"We'll see what the parliamentarian decides," he said. "We hope it does qualify for the reconciliation because the Republicans tend not to be for raising the minimum wage."

The Democrat-led House previously has passed a gradual increase to a $15 minimum wage, but it didn't pass the then-GOP-controlled Senate. A similar proposal, that would raise the wage to $15 by 2025 has again been filed in the House.

"We think that is something that will speak directly to the economic recovery that we need to make and the long-term well being of the economy, as well as the income disparity that exists so starkly in our country, which is one of the challenges that we face," Hoyer said.

Critics of the proposed minimum wage hike argue that it could place a burden on small businesses and adversely impact states with lower cost-of-living levels. Some members of Congress have argued that it should be left to states to set their own minimum pay scales, while state lawmakers tend to point to Congress to make the determination.

Congress's last minimum wage increase, setting the current level at $7.25, was in 2009. Since then, 29 states and Washington, D.C. have adopted higher minimum wages on their own. Five states—Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee—have never adopted a minimum wage law and default to the federal level.

Florida voters last year agreed to increase the minimum wage to $15 by 2026.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has repeatedly brushed off questions about the minimum wage hike's inclusion in a Biden-backed proposal, and said she won't reveal negotiations from the press briefing room.

"The president feels strongly that we need to raise the minimum wage...whether it can be done through the reconciliation process will be determined by the House and Senate," she told reporters Thursday.

US capitol
The early morning sun strikes the U.S. Capitol November 6, 2006 in Washington, DC. Win McNamee/Getty