WASHINGTON - House Democrats are preparing to vote to lift the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, delivering on a long-standing liberal priority that has become a rallying cry for 2020 Democratic presidential contenders.
The bill scheduled for a vote Thursday, July 18, would raise the minimum wage gradually from its current level of $7.25 an hour until reaching $15 an hour in 2025. The legislation was amended earlier this week at the urging of moderate Democrats to provide for a slower six-year phase-in, instead of five years as originally envisioned.
The "Fight for $15" has become a potent political push on the left, but bringing it to fruition on the floor of the House took months of maneuvering as some moderates voiced concerns about the impacts on small businesses or in rural areas where pay scales are lower than in larger metropolitan areas. Ultimately, the slower phase-in pushed by moderate members - along with a proposed study that would measure the impacts of the wage increase partway through its implementation - satisfied the concerns of the large majority of House Democrats.
Although the legislation is not expected to advance in the Republican-run Senate, House Democrats celebrated what they described as a major achievement in their fight for U.S. workers.
The legislation is "one of our major planks in our campaign," said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "This is going to have a very substantial positive effect on probably as many as 27 million people."
Republicans are almost uniformly opposed, a stance that was fueled by a Congressional Budget Office report last week that said increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour would lead to 1.3 million lost jobs. The report also said that the change would lift the earnings of 27.3 million workers. The federal minimum wage has not been raised since 2009, but Republicans described the Democratic legislation as a jobs-killer.
"House Democrats cannot in good conscience bring the Raise the Wage Act to the floor," House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., said after release of the CBO report, calling the Democrats' legislation "reckless" and part of their "liberal, socialist agenda."
Rep. Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., a moderate Blue Dog Coalition leader who played a lead role in negotiating the bill, rejected the GOP criticism while contending that the deliberate approach advocated by moderate Democrats would guard against any negative effects.
"The positive impacts way outweigh any potential negative impacts, but the incremental way in which we're doing this along with the data-focused approach allows us to address any real harm - if there is harm - as we move along," Murphy said.
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., who had been pushing to adopt a regionally adjusted minimum wage, said she will be voting for the bill, even though it will not include any regional adjustment or a small-business tax credit she championed.
"We promised the American people a raise, and this is the only vehicle that's moving. I still stand by my bill - I think my approach is better," Sewell said. "But at the end of the day, this is a Democratic process and this is the bill that's moving."
The bill is expected to pass on a near party-line vote with overwhelming Democratic support, although there was some concern among Democrats that Republicans would try to use parliamentary maneuvers on the floor to force last-minute changes that could split Democrats and upend the vote. Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus cautioned that such developments could jeopardize passage of the legislation, which some of their members have been promoting for years.
"I'm a little frustrated we have to extend the date a little bit, but I really believe it needs to get done and I will vote for it and I will celebrate the passage of the first raise of the federal minimum wage in such a long time," said Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., a Progressive Caucus leader.
Polling has found a $15 minimum wage to be broadly popular with the public. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey last year found 60% of U.S. adults supported raising the national minimum wage to $15 an hour, while 37% were opposed. The candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination uniformly support the change, and some are making it an important focus of their campaigns. In Iowa this week, several candidates rallied with Fight for $15 workers.
As the federal minimum wage has stagnated, states and localities have increasingly acted on their own. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the effective minimum wage has increased in 27 states and the District of Columbia since 2014; 29 states and the District now have a minimum wage that is higher than the federal minimum wage.
This article was written by Erica Werner and Mike DeBonis, reporters for The Washington Post.