Two Republican senators made a counterproposal to Democrats on the minimum wage Tuesday, offering to gradually hike the federal wage floor to $10 per hour while requiring employers to use E-Verify to crack down on undocumented workers.
The plan put forth by GOP Sens. Tom Cotton (Ark.) and Mitt Romney (Utah) falls well short of the $15 hourly wage that progressives in both the House and Senate are pushing for. Its immigration provisions could also draw stiff resistance from Democrats as well as business groups.
Romney, one of the few moderate Republicans known to cross the aisle to work with Democrats, argued that the more modest wage increase would prevent job losses and that the expanded use of E-Verify would discourage undocumented workers from entering the U.S.
“We must create opportunities for American workers and protect their jobs, while also eliminating one of the key drivers of illegal immigration,” Romney said in a statement.
The Romney-Cotton proposal shows just how far apart Democrats and Republicans are on the issue of the minimum wage.
Democrats are attempting to push through a proposal that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next four years, with no strings attached, as part of their COVID-19 relief package. It would also eliminate the “tipped” minimum wage that allows employers to pay servers and other workers who receive gratuities a lower base wage.
Knowing Republicans are unlikely to sign on to a $15 minimum wage — or any of their COVID-19 relief plan, really — Democrats have been attempting to push their bill through a legislative process called budget reconciliation. That would allow them to pass their legislation with only 50 votes in the Senate, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting the tie-breaker, but it also potentially would limit Democrats’ abilities to act on the minimum wage.
For one, two Democratic senators, Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.), already have come out against a $15 minimum wage. Manchin said he is supportive of a narrower increase, to $11 an hour.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour and hasn’t been raised in more than a decade.
But even if all 50 Democrats were on board, Senate rules require that all legislation passed through budget reconciliation have a significant and direct impact on the federal budget. The Senate parliamentarian is set to rule this week whether increasing the minimum wage passes muster.
If it doesn’t, Democrats may not have much of a choice but to compromise across the aisle and pass legislation separate from the relief bill.
Romney told reporters Tuesday that senators will “need to sit down and work on a bipartisan proposal” if the minimum wage isn’t passed through reconciliation, according to the Hill press pool.
“We’re open to considering other people’s points of view. But I think the recognition that we need to raise the minimum wage and tie it to an inflator makes sense,” Romney said. “And then I think linking that with a system that enforces our immigration laws and prevents people from coming here illegally and taking away jobs from from people at the entry level of our economy, it makes a lot of sense.”
Already, Democrats have said the proposal falls far too short.
“While I’m glad some Republicans in Congress are finally acknowledging $7.25 an hour isn’t a livable wage, a $2.75 an hour increase for some workers stretched out over five years just isn’t enough,” Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who chairs the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee in the Senate, said in a statement to HuffPost.
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour and hasn’t been raised in more than a decade. While Republicans in Congress have allowed it to languish, many states have gone ahead and implemented their own increases by popular demand. That includes Cotton’s home state of Arkansas, where the wage floor last month reached $11 due to a 2018 ballot initiative. That’s a full dollar more than where Cotton’s proposal would have the federal rate in 2026.
The success of the Fight for $15 campaign in fast food has helped make a $15 minimum wage part of the Democratic Party platform, and something progressives in the party would have a hard time walking away from. The last time Democrats widely supported a $10 federal wage floor was several years ago, before states such as California, Connecticut and even Florida began adopting their own $15 plans.
The AFL-CIO labor federation was not impressed with the Republicans’ proposal.
“What an insult to the millions of people working every day to keep this country afloat,” John Weber, a federation spokesperson, said in an email. “The Romney-Cotton plan is a recipe for labor exploitation. It’s designed to undercut wages, keep essential workers in extended poverty, and deny America a desperately-needed raise right when we need it most.”
The Romney-Cotton proposal does show some congressional progress on the issue, by virtue of the fact that it’s a proposal at all. There has been little support among Republicans for any kind of increase, although Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also proposed a minimum wage increase, to $10.10, along with some business tax cuts, in 2017. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) prevented minimum wage plans from going anywhere in the upper chamber while he was majority leader.
The success of the Fight for $15 campaign in fast food has helped make a $15 minimum wage part of the Democratic Party platform.
The new proposal would tie the minimum wage to an inflation index, an idea also supported by Democrats. But the senators’ decision to attach immigration policy to the minimum wage increase is sure to rankle Democrats.
Mandatory use of E-Verify has been panned by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, which says the practice creates “a whole new level of intrusive government oversight of daily life—a bureaucratic ‘prove yourself to work’ system that hurts ordinary people.”
For Democrats, an E-Verify mandate has always been accepted as a bargaining chip with Republicans. Democrats contentiously agreed to it in 2013 while negotiating a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have given millions of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. That effort ultimately died in the House.
During the 2020 presidential primary, several candidates, including Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), came out against E-Verify. Others, like Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), maintained that it would be acceptable in a compromise. Notably, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris stayed quiet on the issue in the runup to the 2020 election.
In that case, the question for Democrats will be whether a narrower minimum wage increase is a good enough trade to enact these immigration reforms.
Democrats like Murray are balking at the notion. She called the immigration provisions “unacceptable” and “an attack on hard-working immigrant families.”
“After more than a decade since the last federal minimum wage increase, this unnecessarily partisan proposal that doesn’t come close to the $15 an hour two-thirds of Americans from both parties support—which is what we will keep working to get done,” Murray said.
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