Minutes after the Senate parliamentarian advised against keeping the proposed $15 minimum wage hike in the American Rescue Plan, key House Democrats formed a group chat over text message to discuss tactics for pressuring President Joe Biden to keep his crucial campaign pledge.
As the disappointing news for progressives became public on Thursday evening, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) brainstormed into the night with Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Marie Newman (D-IL), Cori Bush (D-MO), and Mondaire Jones (D-NY) about how to effectively use the shared bargaining power of left-wing lawmakers to advance the wage goal with the White House.
“We all felt that something needed to be done,” Khanna told The Daily Beast about the late-night strategy session. “It was really a collective effort.”
When Friday morning rolled around, one freshman congressman awoke still bothered about the grim news out of the Senate. Bowman, a new Squad recruit, took his child to school and made “a phone call right after that” to the White House, an act that would have been considered unthinkable in the past. In a sign of shifting dynamics from prior administrations, however, Bowman has enjoyed a particularly open, ongoing dialogue with senior officials during the earliest weeks of Biden’s first term.
“We cannot accept any response that ends with ‘our hands are tied.’ We have to exercise all of our authority by any means necessary to get us to a $15 minimum wage,” Bowman told The Daily Beast in a wide-ranging interview. “And oh, by the way, we need a $15 minimum wage like 10 years ago.”
The New York progressive’s call with the White House was just one component of an onslaught of behind-the-scenes action that occurred after Elizabeth MacDonough, the parliamentarian, concluded that the inclusion of the wage increase in the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief plan was against the rules.
On Friday evening and into the weekend, prominent progressives took to cable news to criticize what they considered to be a bureaucratic hurdle to moving the country past stagnantly low wages. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), the chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the decision was “upsetting.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said on Mehdi Hasan’s inaugural segment on MSNBC that they “should override the parliamentarian,” asserting that “constituents and people across this country put Democrats in power” to raise the baseline wage.
After a weekend of activity, Khanna sent a one-page letter with 22 Democrats early on Monday, including those involved in the text exchange and other top members like Ocasio-Cortez, to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris calling on them to “refute” MacDonough’s recommendation.
Khanna, a leading progressive who co-chaired Sanders’ presidential campaign, has also been “in touch” with the White House over the issue. “The outdated and complex Byrd rule rooted in restricting progress must not be an impediment to improving people’s lives,” the letter read, condemning the provision—called the Byrd rule—under which the wage hike was dismissed.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden was “disappointed” in the outcome. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) added the word “deeply” to the president’s sentiment. But White House chief of staff Ron Klain, who was cc’ed on Khanna’s note, indicated last week before the decision that the administration would not challenge it either way. Psaki followed up on Klain’s prior statements, telling reporters on Monday “that’s not an action we intend to take.”
“Everyone says that we have to do a $15 wage. Everyone understands we have to do it before the midterms. So how are we going to get it done?” Khanna said. “What is our alternative?”
Overruling the parliamentarian would go against long-standing Senate norms, but it is not without precedent. Khanna’s letter cites a moment when, in 1967, former Vice President Hubert Humphrey bucked the rules authority’s guidance to “reduce the filibuster threshold from two-thirds of those present to three-fifths,” among other instances.
Some progressives are now turning their attention specifically towards Harris to do so, who could ultimately overturn MacDonough’s stance. The pressure comes as many on the left still eye the vice president skeptically, dating back to the Democratic presidential primary last year, when some took issue with aspects of her record around criminal justice and health care. When Biden announced that she was his choice to be his running mate last August, supporters of progressive candidates generally kept quiet, striking a more diplomatic tone than what was levied on her throughout the cycle in an effort to beat former President Donald Trump.
After Biden won the general election, there was some early hope that Harris might push Biden to the left if he needed a nudge. In her brief tenure in the Senate, she was ranked as having one of the most progressive voting records in the chamber. While short-listed for VP, she even rhetorically inched closer to Sanders.
But some still view her cautiously. “The pressure points on the Biden administration, I believe, do not particularly include Kamala Harris,” said Norman Solomon, national director of RootsAction, who twice served as a delegate for Sanders. “Harris is not from the progressive wing of the party, there’s no reason to believe that she will strongly advocate for progressive positions very extensively.”
While conversations about alternatives are ongoing, those on the left are generally against the idea of potentially trying to raise the federal minimum wage through a standalone bill, acknowledging that it is not likely to pass in a 50-50 Senate. Two conservative-leaning Democrats, Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), have both shied away from including $15 in the current COVID package; Manchin only supports an $11 figure.
With that in mind, some elected officials are expressing a desire to hear directly from the Biden administration about another possible workaround. Multiple lawmakers have suggested the idea of a high-level meeting with a group of Democrats and Biden himself to explain the strategy moving forward, arguing that it would be a constructive step to talk to the president, a source with knowledge of the conversations told The Daily Beast. The White House and vice president’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.
“What are you going to do with $7.25 an hour in any part of this country?” Bowman said. “We have people living in poverty. Abject poverty. [A] $15 minimum wage will put more money in peoples’ pockets, they’ll spend more money, and we’ll get the economy going in a real way.”