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Tension between Democratic factions spills into minimum wage debate

Progressives say they have the votes to kill their priority minimum wage bill if moderates help Republicans amend it

Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Mark Pocan, D-Wis., co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, say their members will not vote for a priority minimum wage bill if moderate Democrats help Republicans adopt a poison pill amendment. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file)
Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and Mark Pocan, D-Wis., co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, say their members will not vote for a priority minimum wage bill if moderate Democrats help Republicans adopt a poison pill amendment. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file)

Tension between the progressive and moderate factions of the Democratic Caucus are again spilling into public view ahead of a priority party vote to raise the federal minimum wage. 

A day before a planned Thursday vote on a bill to incrementally increase the current $7.25 federal minimum wage to $15, Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairs Mark Pocan and Pramila Jayapal issued a statement that served as a warning to their moderate colleagues. 

“We have no doubt that congressional Republicans will try to divide the Democratic Caucus with a disingenuous motion to recommit,” they said. “It’s up to all of us to stand unified and reject their bad faith effort to undermine this bill. After consulting with our members this week, we are confident that any bill that includes a poison pill Republican motion to recommit will lack the votes to pass on the House floor.”

To translate, progressives are willing to vote against a piece of legislation they have championed if moderate Democrats help Republicans adopt a last-minute amendment to the bill, known as a motion to recommit, or MTR. 

Their warning, coming in the form of a public statement and not a private conversation, is significant and shows a lack of trust between the two factions. Tension that had surfaced among Democrats amid intraparty debate over border funding last month clearly has not cooled. 

The Progressive Caucus statement also provides Republicans with an opportunity to craft their MTR in a way that is designed to attract Democratic support. 

The minority does not have to offer the majority advance notice of what amendment they plan to propose through the MTR, so it is difficult for the Democrats to prepare for what Republicans may offer. 

Three times already this year, Republicans have won MTR votes with moderate Democrats’ help. 

The first MTR the GOP won, on a resolution to remove U.S. armed forces assisting the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen, actually drew support from all House Democrats. Adopted unanimously, that MTR added language asserting that “it is in the national security interest of the United States to combat anti-Semitism around the world.”

But the second MTR Republicans won on drew more consternation from the Democratic Caucus because it was on a priority measure to expand background checks on gun purchases.

The Republican language that 26 moderate Democrats helped approve would require the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to be notified if an undocumented immigrant tries to buy a gun. That provision angered some progressives, who said they felt backed into a corner to vote for anti-immigrant language they opposed because they supported the underlying bill. 

Last month 37 Democrats voted for a Republican MTR to add language to Democrats’ fiscal 2020 Financial Services appropriations bill to increase funding for the Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence by $10 million to support enforcement of Iran sanctions. 

And in most other cases where Democrats successfully defeated the GOP’s MTRs, a handful of moderates would still vote for them. 

Progressives are clearly worried about what language Republicans may try to add to the minimum wage bill.

It already took several months of intraparty negotiating for Democrats to secure the support they need to pass the minimum wage increase on their own, since Republicans are expected to unanimously oppose it. 

To address some moderates’ concerns about the bill, leadership and the bill’s sponsor, Education and Labor Chairman Bobby Scott, have already agreed to a manager’s amendment to extend the period over which the minimum wage would incrementally be raised to $15 from five years to six. 

They’ve also allowed moderates a vote on an amendment to require the Government Accountability Office to submit a report to Congress on the economic and employment impacts of the minimum wage increase that is to be prepared between the second and third scheduled increase. The report, moderates argue, will allow Congress to determine whether further legislative action is needed to delay or otherwise modify the remaining scheduled wage increases.

Progressives, who had originally pushed for a vote on the bill without any changes, are clearly not in the mood to make further concessions.

“The Progressive Caucus is eager for a strong floor vote raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour,” Pocan and Jayapal said in their statement. “We are deeply grateful to the organizers, activists and working people across the country who fought for years to make this vote a reality. It would be a disservice to these families — who put their paychecks on the line to fight for dignity in the workplace — to do anything less than what we’ve promised: a clean vote to raise the minimum wage, for all workers across the country.”

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