Progressive leaders warn Biden administration to 'hold the line' on minimum wage hike

Marquise Francis
·National Reporter & Producer
·8 min read

Nina Turner, former national co-chair for Sen. Bernie Sanders's 2020 presidential campaign, says middle- and lower-income Americans are “drowning” and need a substantial relief package from the White House and congressional Democrats.

“When you have people enduring a pandemic of this nature, they need instant relief,” Turner, who is running for the Ohio congressional seat being vacated by Housing Secretary nominee Marcia Fudge, told Yahoo News this week.

“And so that $2,000 should have been there on day one. I liken it to somebody being in the middle of the ocean drowning, and if you're on the shore and you can save them, you say, 'Hold on, wait a minute. I'll be back in a few days, or I'll be back in a month.'”

Prior to his inauguration, President Biden pushed for $2,000 checks to Americans struggling due to the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns that have shuttered many businesses. The current $1.9 trillion relief package includes a provision for $1,400 checks, but the White House notes that since $600 checks were approved by the last Congress in December, the total still comes out to $2,000.

Former Sanders co-chair Nina Turner (Getty Images)
Former Bernie Sanders campaign co-chair Nina Turner. (Getty Images)

Turner and a large number of progressive leaders within and outside Congress are pushing the Biden administration to go big and go fast on COVID-19 relief to families they say are in dire need of help to pay for food, rent and more.

“Democrats got what we asked for,” Turner said. “We asked for control of the presidency. We asked for the control of both chambers of the Congress. We have it. So now it is time to deliver on behalf of the people.”

In his first three days in office, Biden signed more than 30 executive orders and actions. The moves halted funding for the construction of former President Donald Trump's border wall, ramped up COVID-19 vaccination supplies, reversed Trump’s travel ban that targeted mostly Muslim countries and imposed a federal mask mandate. But progressives say they’re frustrated by the amount of time it has taken to pass a relief package through Congress, and argue that the promise of $2,000 checks was essential to Democratic victories in last month’s Senate elections in Georgia.

Additionally, proponents of a $15 minimum wage like Turner believe Biden should “hold the line” on an increase despite resistance from congressional Republicans and moderate Democrats. On Thursday, Democrats received a huge blow on this front when Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled that the Senate cannot use the budget reconciliation process to pass a minimum wage increase in its relief bill.

Despite that ruling, the House plans to vote for a relief bill on Friday that includes a $15 provision, although it is likely to be dead on arrival in the Senate, which Democrats control only because Vice President Kamala Harris can cast a tiebreaking vote. Still, progressives say a $15 minimum wage hike must remain a top priority for the Biden administration, and note that polls show broad support for the measure.

President Joe Biden listens as Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the Pentagon, February 10, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo by ALEX BRANDON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
President Biden listens as Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the Pentagon on Feb. 10. (Alex Brandon/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

The national minimum wage has been at $7.25 since 2009. Experts say that if it had kept pace with productivity growth since 1968, it would be near $24. Democrats believe $15 is a compromise, and that with control of the House and Senate, their best chance at passing it is now.

“That $15 an hour [does a lot],” Turner said. “Let’s get creative in the same way we’ve been creative decade after decade in making sure that the corporations and the ultra-wealthy in this country get their breaks.”

Some moderate Senate Democrats, however, say $15 is a bad idea. Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have both said they won't support it.

Biden has said he would prefer a bipartisan relief bill, but Republicans have shown no interest in backing the $1.9 trillion package that Democrats have proposed. The Democratic legislation includes money to reopen schools, aid to small businesses, assistance for state and local budgets and $1,400 direct payments, among other provisions. Republicans, however, argue that much of the $1.9 trillion in the Democrats’ plan is wasteful and counterproductive, and a group of moderate GOP lawmakers have instead proposed a roughly $600 billion relief plan.

“The Biden stimulus is unsound economic policy. High unemployment isn’t the result of too little money in American pockets; it’s because of the pandemic,” Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, a leading proponent of the GOP’s smaller relief package, argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed earlier this week.

“Sending out checks won’t get consumers back into restaurants, bars, salons, malls, hotels or airplanes. Near-record levels of savings are evidence that consumers are able to spend. When Covid is finally in the rearview mirror, they will come roaring back. Congress should target assistance to those who need it and help speed the delivery of vaccines — not borrow hundreds of billions more to check items off a political wish list, deepening the nation’s debt and risking inflation.”

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) speaks during his weekly news conference on Capitol Hill. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, likewise has argued that while she supports “prompt additional funding for vaccine production, distribution and vaccinators, and for testing, it seems premature to be considering a package of this size and scope.”

“I think all Republicans believe in three simple things: They want a bill that puts us back to work, back to school and back to health,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said. “This bill is too costly, too corrupt and too liberal.”

Republicans also argue that a $15 minimum wage hike would hurt small businesses already suffering due to the pandemic. They add that the Congressional Budget Office says the $15 minimum would cost 1.4 million jobs, although the CBO said it would also boost some 900,000 Americans out of poverty.

Top Democrats say the minimum wage hike and larger COVID-19 relief package would put money in more Americans' pockets, allowing more people to buy more goods and services and boost the economy. They contend that raising the minimum wage would narrow the racial and gender pay gaps and start to reverse decades of rising pay inequality.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), surrounded by House and Senate Leaders including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. (Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Republican resistance to the relief bill is nothing more than “reflexive partisan opposition” that is “not going to wash with the American people. It wouldn’t wash at any time, but it especially doesn’t wash during this time of crisis.”

Joe Sanberg, a national minimum wage advocate and investor who previously briefed the Biden transition team on labor issues, rejects any notion that a minimum wage hike is “bad for business."

“The No. 1 pressure we face [as business leaders] is that the people who we want to buy our goods and services don't have enough money,” Sanberg told Yahoo News. “So when you put more money into the pockets of people who you want to buy your goods and services, then your business grows. We have an economy that is dependent on consumption. Yet people who consume things have, by and large, not had any money.”

Sanberg added that he feels “it's quite frankly odd that there isn't more unanimous senatorial support” given that voters overwhelmingly want a wage hike. About two-thirds, or 64 percent, of Americans support a raise in the minimum wage, according to a Hill-HarrisX poll from late last month. A new Yahoo News/YouGov poll, meanwhile, found 52 percent of Americans want to boost the minimum to $15, versus 37 percent who do not. And a Yahoo Finance/Harris poll from earlier this month found that a whopping 83 percent of Americans say the current minimum rate is too low.

Progressives argue that Republicans' concerns about debt and deficit spending are hypocritical given their record during the Trump administration. From 2017 to 2021, the national debt grew by almost $8 trillion, and a GOP-led Congress passed $2.3 trillion in tax cuts, a figure that is $400 billion larger than the relief package Biden wants to push through.

Former President Trump (Getty Images)
Former President Donald Trump. (Getty Images)

Biden has repeatedly stressed the need for “unity” in the aftermath of a divisive Trump presidency, and top White House aides have noted that the polling on a minimum wage increase indicates it has broad appeal among Americans of all political stripes despite opposition from GOP lawmakers. Turner added that unity is “an action word,” meaning both Democrats and Republicans need to work together for the common good — or Democratic leaders should press on alone.

“It takes two parties to play, to participate in unity,” Turner said. “I'm OK with having the conversation, but at the end of the day, Democrats are in control.”

And Sanberg said he’s confident that if Democrats don’t push for popular provisions like the minimum wage hike, they’ll suffer in next year’s primaries and midterm elections.

“I think for leaders who act with that urgency, there's going to be tremendous popular support,” he said. “And for those that don't, we're going to go find new leaders in 2022 when we have elections.”

Cover thumbnail photo Illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Joe Sanberg, Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images, Salwan Georges/Washington Post via Getty Images

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