In a decision that everyone saw coming, the Senate Parliamentarian ruled on Thursday that an increase to the minimum wage cannot be included in a bill passed through budget reconciliation like President Biden’s upcoming monster COVID-19 relief legislation, which may be one of the only pieces of legislation he gets passed in a tightly divided 50-50 Senate.
But whatever the norms may dictate, the Senate is not forced to abide by the soothsayer’s readings. When Senate Republicans were told that they weren’t allowed to include tax cuts in a budget reconciliation bill in 2001, then-Republican Majority leader Trent Lott immediately fired the parliamentarian and replaced him with someone who more amenable to their demands. They got their tax cuts.
Luckily, Democrats don’t even need to be so drastic. The Vice-President serves as the Chair of the Senate and in a tie Senate will cast the deciding votes; it turns out Vice-President Kamala Harris is under no obligation to abide by the parliamentarian’s decision, and there’s plenty of precedent to justify it. Unless the Republicans can get 60 votes to sustain an appeal (which they can’t), the Chair of the Senate can do as she pleases. “The parliamentarian can only advise. It is the vice president who rules,” said former parliamentarian Robert Dove in 2010.
But for some reason, the Biden administration has already signaled that it has no desire to do so, perhaps out of some misguided fear that it would be seized upon as dictatorial and divisive by bad faith Republicans. White House chief of staff Ron Klain said on Wednesday that “certainly that’s not something we would do. We’re going to honor the rules of the Senate and work within that system to get this bill passed.”
After the parliamentarian passed down her ruling, the White House issued a statement saying it was “disappointed” but “respects the parliament’s decision and the Senate’s process.”
This is the wrong response. The Democrats have a very, very tight window in which to get anything at all done, and we can’t afford to waste it. Raising the minimum wage to $15 was one of Biden’s primary campaign promises to the American people and is hugely popular among voters. Simultaneously delivering a $15 minimum wage and $1400 checks to an American public that has been scrimping and suffering under a year of an economy strangled by pandemic would be the biggest material accomplishment for working people since the flawed Affordable Care Act and would go a long way towards preserving the Democrats’ tenuous grip on power.
Having watched a blue Senate majority slip away and Republicans obstruct President Obama’s entire agenda, Biden knows just how fleeting the window of opportunity for monumental change can be.
This could be the only chance we have to raise the minimum wage for the first time in eleven years, especially since Biden doesn’t want to abolish the filibuster either, and we can’t allow it to go to waste. It will do us no good to hold a floor vote and watch Republicans vote it down just so we can use the footage for attack ads in 2022. People need help now and the $15 minimum wage is a decade overdue.
Nor can we allow fears that a conservative like Joe Manchin or Krysten Sinema might oppose the vote in a performative defense of bipartisanship. McConnell would never allow a single member of his caucus to stand in the way of their agenda. Whatever Manchin wants — a free coal mine for every voter in West Virginia? — we need to give it to him to deliver Biden’s promises to the American people.
It’s time to send a message to every jaded and cynical American who has lost all faith in our government’s ability or even interest in delivering any kind of meaningful material benefits to their lives that the Democrats are back and ready to do whatever it takes to get the job done, consequences be damned.
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Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.