While Congress remains in their Presidents Day recess, some enjoying it more than others, leadership and President Joe Biden have continued work advancing the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief legislation that has to pass before March 14, when enhanced and extended unemployment insurance benefits expire for millions. That work has included Biden’s pitch to the public at his town hall Tuesday and meeting with top labor leaders to enlist their help. “We have an incredible opportunity to make some enormous progress in creating jobs,” Biden told reporters before the meeting, referring to both the relief package and the infrastructure plan he intends to turn to next.
Congressional leaders are hammering out how to get the full package through the Senate, including the $15/hour minimum wage increase that remains a point of contention. The House is including that provision in their package, but there remains doubt as to whether all Senate Democrats are on board with the hardball tactics it might take to pass it. At issue is the rules of budget reconciliation, the process they’re using to push the package through quickly, and without the threat of a Republican filibuster, since it requires a simple majority vote. The rules on this are actually pretty fluid, and the proof of that is in some extraneous provisions Republicans got away with in their 2017 tax cuts bill. The question isn’t if this is something that can be done, raising the federal minimum wage in a reconciliation bill, but whether Democrats will be united in doing it. There’s absolutely no question that they should, because the financial pain this crisis is causing demands it.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released new analysis Wednesday showing both the depth of the economic crisis and the potential of the relief package to mitigate that. “The economy remains weak, the jobs recovery has lost momentum, and there are nearly 10 million fewer jobs than in February of 2020,” the analysts write. “Black and Latino unemployment is 9.2 percent and 8.6 percent, respectively, well above the white unemployment rate of 5.7 percent—which itself is too high. The economy won’t return to its full potential until 2025, the Congressional Budget Office projects; the number of people employed won’t return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024; and unemployment won’t fall below 4 percent until 2026.”
“The extent and severity of hunger, eviction, homelessness, and other hardship in the days ahead will depend on whether policymakers provide robust relief that reaches those in need (and on the pandemic’s trajectory and the economy’s pace of recovery),” CBPP staff continue. This package, they write “would provide needed help to tens of millions of people, reduce high levels of hardship, help school districts address student learning loss, and bolster the economy.” And that’s not even considering some of the elements of the bill, like the “new round of stimulus payments, public health investments, a minimum wage increase, paid leave provisions, additional child care funding, and aid to businesses,” which they didn’t include in their analysis.
There’s no question that the employment situation is dire, the Labor Department reporting another 1.38 million new unemployment claims just last week, as as many as 25.5 million workers out of the labor force or working fewer hours for less pay. Which is where Biden’s outreach to labor comes in, and where labor—and civil rights leaders—can push back. Leaders in both movements have been are engaging in pushing both lawmakers and Biden on his minimum wage increase promise.
That includes Reverend William Barber, whose group is meeting with Sen. Joe Manchin Thursday. He points out that nearly 60 million workers in the U.S. earn less than $15 an hour right now, and that many of these workers are considered essential, at the front lines in the pandemic now. “Democrats need to stay focused and united and get this done. And they don’t need to talk about indexing the minimum wage for some places like the South and Midwest or leaving out tip workers,” Barber said in a statement.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi confirmed Thursday that she intends for the House to vote on the COVID-19 relief bill by the end of next week. The White House and Senate Democrats need to stay focused on one thing between now and March 15, summed up in an internal White House memo from White House Senior Adviser Mike Donilon: “There seems to be a growing conventional wisdom that it is either politically smart—or, at worst, cost-free—for the GOP to adopt an obstructionist, partisan, base-politics posture. […] However, there is lots of evidence that the opposite is true: that it isn’t politically smart for the GOP to be going down this road. And rather than being cost-free, this approach has been quite damaging to them.”
That sentiment was reiterated by White House press secretary Jen Paski Tuesday. “Obviously, Republicans in Congress will have to make their own choice about whether they support the final package. It is still working its way through Congress but the vast majority of the public support it, including the vast majority of most members’ constituents, so it’s really a question for them.” The unspoken part of that it that it is also a choice for a handful of recalcitrant Senate Democrats.