Negotiations with Republicans would be another step entirely. And it would likely frustrate progressives and raise alarms among labor and advocacy groups who are looking to Biden to make good on his promise to deliver a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Progressives argue that a phased-in $15 floor over five years is already a compromise and would likely oppose any deal that would go significantly lower.
“They don’t want to blow up the world politically and pay a huge political cost, but if the politics aligned for a smaller increase, Joe Biden generally wants to get deals done,” said a source with knowledge of the administration’s thinking. The White House is “not doctrinaire on policy grounds about what it is they sign” the source added.
Cedric Richmond, a White House senior adviser, would only say that the administration is “exploring all options,” and that internal deliberations were still in the preliminary stages.
“It’s still early in the game,” Richmond said. “This is not the point where you lay your whole strategy out for the world to see.”
The search for a path to passing a wage hike took on renewed importance this week after the Senate parliamentarian ruled that Democrats and the White House could not do so in the Covid relief bill being considered under reconciliation rules. Democrats are considering trying to pass the measure through reconciliation again, when Congress considers its second such bill in the months ahead. But that would face similar hurdles, not least of which is that several Senate Democrats have said they won’t support an $15-an-hour hike.
Moving a bill through regular order would not involve the parliamentarian. But it would require 60 Senate votes to pass — meaning every Democrat and at least 10 Republicans would have to sign on. And that, said former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a key Biden ally, is where a deal may have to be struck.
“The minimum wage will be raised, it’s just a question of how much,” Reid said. “The House may come up with $15 an hour, but I think when it comes to the Senate one way or another it will be cut back.”
The White House has repeatedly insisted that Biden remains committed to a $15-an-hour minimum wage. And in a meeting with Senate Democrats on Tuesday, the president reiterated his position: “We need to get to $15,” he said. “I fully support $15.”
But the White House has, in the past, telegraphed that a final negotiation could mean they don’t hit that mark. And within Biden’s orbit, there is not a strong desire to use the issue as a battering ram against the opposition.
“There is zero percent chance the White House is going to shove the minimum wage down Republicans’ throats,” a source close to the White House said.
On Wednesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki repeated Biden’s commitment to a $15-an-hour wage. But when asked if the president would negotiate with Republicans, she said, “he’s happy to hear any ideas but I’m not going to negotiate from here obviously.”
Aides insist that talks with Republicans don’t necessarily mean moving off of $15. There are other dimensions that could be negotiated, including extending the period of time over which the wage is raised, redefining which companies are impacted, and including other provisions to help out small businesses that may have to raise wages for their employees.
Republicans have shown some comfort with wage hikes, though not nearly to the same degree as Democrats. Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) proposed a phased-in minimum wage increase to $10-an-hour coupled with an e-verify mandate, requiring proof that employees are legally able to work in the country.
There so far has been no contact between Romney or Cotton and the White House on minimum wage, according to two sources familiar with the matter. A Senate GOP aide said there are Republicans who are willing to have conversations about the wage floor, but that the e-verify mandate is likely a sticking point.
Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, argued that Biden could use the support he’s built around the Covid relief package to push lawmakers to support a $15 wage floor: He has “got all this support back in their home districts and states.” Nelson expected a $15 wage hike to be part of discussions around a jobs and infrastructure package that the White House is expected to focus on in the coming months. And she argued that Biden should pressure Republicans by building support for a wage hike with governors and mayors.
“This is something that Biden understands,” said Nelson, “that you can’t write people off because when you write people off, you are excusing them and you’re not holding them accountable.”
Caitlin Oprysko and Theodoric Meyer contributed reporting.