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House votes to raise federal minimum wage

Issue exposed rifts among Democrats. Legislation stalled in Senate

The House voted on Thursday to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The House voted on Thursday to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Updated 12:46 p.m. | The House voted 231-199 Thursday to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour incrementally over six years, but the Democratic effort was almost derailed by divisions between progressives and moderates.

Progressives on Wednesday had issued a last-minute warning to their moderate colleagues not to help Republicans make any last-minute changes to the bill through the procedural maneuver known as a motion to recommit, or MTR. If moderate Democrats helped the GOP add what the progressives considered poison pill language to the measure, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus were prepared to vote against it, the group’s co-chairs, Reps. Mark Pocan and Pramila Jayapal, said. 

[Tension between Democratic factions spills into minimum wage debate]

The MTR would have added language to exempt small businesses with fewer than 10 employees or annual gross income of less than $1 million from implementing the $15 minimum wage.

Ultimately, Democrats defeated the MTR Republicans offered, 210-218, which cleared the way for a smooth but partisan final passage. 

The legislation, dubbed the Raise the Wage Act, has been a top priority for many House Democrats and came to the floor with 205 co-sponsors. Sponsored by Education and Labor Chairman Robert C. Scott, the bill was voted out of his committee along party lines in March.

[CBO: Raising the minimum wage to $15 could boost pay of up to 27 million workers]

The federal minimum wage has been raised nine times since it was first enacted in 1938. The latest increase was in 2009 to the current level of $7.25 per hour. Currently 29 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have higher rates (but all are below $15 an hour).

The original bill would have incrementally increased the current $7.25 federal minimum wage to $15 over five years, but a manager’s amendment folded into the bill upon adoption of the rule for debate extended the timeline to six years. 

Under the measure, once the minimum wage reaches $15 per hour, it would continue to be adjusted for inflation. The bill would also increase the sub-minimum wage for tipped employees, teenagers and employees with disabilities until they all equal the general minimum wage.

The movement advocating an increase to the minimum wage has grown in recent years. Fast food workers and others have walked off the job to demand a living wage and the right to unionize. Strikes have emerged in cities across the country as workers embraced the “Fight for $15” rallying cry. In 2016, Democrats adopted the $15 per hour minimum wage as part of their party platform for that year’s elections.

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Lost jobs vs. pay raises

A Congressional Budget Office report on the bill, released earlier this month, said that more than doubling the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour could cost 1.3 million jobs when fully implemented by 2025, though millions would see higher wages and the number of Americans living in poverty would decrease.

The report made clear that its estimate of 1.3 million potential job losses, which would equal roughly 0.8 percent of the workforce, was a median forecast, and that job losses could be substantially smaller — or larger. In a worst-case scenario, some 3.7 million jobs could be lost, the agency said. On the other hand, wages could rise for as many as 27 million workers.

Democrats and Republicans have latched on to different aspects of the nonpartisan CBO’s findings.

House Minority Whip Steve Scalise embraced the worst-case scenario estimate of some 3.7 million jobs lost as fact, despite CBO’s guidance that the figure was an estimate.

“That’s literally the entire state of Oklahoma. That’s how many jobs would be lost under this bill,” the Louisiana Republican said, noting that the bill would “eviscerate millions of American jobs.”

Rep. Virginia Foxx, the top Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, said that current high employment rates will force employers to offer better compensation and that the bill would negatively affect families and businesses.

“Job creators know they must offer competitive wages and benefits to attract and retain workers,” the North Carolina Republican said. “Instead of considering this job-killing, income-reducing bill, we should advance legislation that empowers communities, creates opportunities and opens doors for all workers and families.”

Democrats zeroed in instead on the more rosy CBO estimates.

“The Raise the Wage Act gives up to 33 million Americans a long overdue raise — 33 million Americans — and lifts so many people out of poverty,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during a press conference on the measure Thursday just before the vote. 

The California Democrat summed up her point by noting that the measure “honors the dignity of work.”

Pelosi, other Democratic leaders and lawmakers were joined at the press conference by activists, who opened the event by chanting, “We work, we sweat. Put $15 on our check.”

Divisions before unity

The unity at the Democrats’ press conference, where Progressive Caucus leaders spoke alongside the head of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, masked intraparty divisions on the minimum wage that had flared in recent weeks and had been simmering for months.

Some Democrats felt the bill’s original five-year time span for doubling the existing minimum wage would be too quick for some states or regions where the cost of living is lower. In those areas, the spending power of a dollar goes further for consumers, but income is lower for regional businesses that would have to pay their employees the higher wage.

Rep. Terri A. Sewell had offered an alternative measure to institute a regional minimum wage that would allow rural areas to gradually increase their minimums to $15 on a more extended schedule, but it only had 12 co-sponsors and never caught traction among the broader caucus. 

The Alabama Democrat told CQ Roll Call on Wednesday that despite her preferred approach she was prepared to vote for Scott’s bill the following day.

“At the end of the day, we, as Democrats, have promised the American public a raise, and this was the winning approach that had the most signatures on it. So for me, it’s a value vote, and I’m gong to be voting for it,” Sewell said.

Asked if the compromise struck earlier this month to extend the time period for the increase to six years helped her come around, she said, “Anything that gives small businesses and rural areas a chance to catch up would be great.”

Other Democrats with concerns about how fast the bill would more than double the minimum wage secured 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, these moderate Democrats argue, would allow Congress to determine whether further legislative action is needed to delay or otherwise modify the remaining scheduled wage increases.

The amendment, led by Arizona Rep. Tom O’Halleran, was adopted 248-181. 

An identical $15 minimum wage bill introduced in the Senate by Vermont independent Bernie Sanders has not advanced in that GOP-controlled chamber.

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Paul M. Krawzak contributed to this report.Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the vote total on final passage. The vote was 231-199.

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