The federal minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour for more than 11 years. Whether or not it rises anytime soon largely depends on Georgia, where two runoff elections in January will determine which party controls the Senate.
Democrats acknowledge that their plan to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour over the course of several years stands virtually no chance if Republicans maintain control of the upper chamber, even with Joe Biden in the White House and a slim Democratic majority in the House. Even a more modest hourly increase likely would not have enough votes in a GOP Senate.
While most states have their own, higher minimum wages, there are 21 states where the federal minimum wage is the law. Congress hasn’t approved a hike since George W. Bush occupied the White House, with Republicans blocking repeated efforts by Democrats.
“[Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell hasn’t given a crap about the minimum wage his entire career,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told HuffPost. “He’s not going to care about it in 2021.”
Murphy said the odds of a minimum wage hike ― like much of the progressive agenda ― were “slim to none” unless Democratic nominees Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock knock off Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. A double win in Georgia would create a 50-50 tie in the chamber, and Vice President Kamala Harris would have the tie-breaker vote. In that case, Democrats could pass a minimum wage hike on their own, but only if they were willing to blow up the filibuster.
But even with Senate control, it’s still not clear Democrats would have the votes necessary to pass what has become party doctrine: a $15 wage floor from coast to coast. Some moderate members in both chambers could be reluctant to back an aggressive wage hike over the objections of business groups, and Democrats’ smaller majority in the House leaves less room for error.
As of now, Democrats will hold 222 seats to Republicans’ 210 next session, with three seats still up in the air. When the House voted on a $15 minimum wage in July 2019, it passed 231-199, with six Democrats voting against it and three Republicans voting for it.
Mitch McConnell hasn’t given a crap about the minimum wage his entire career. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.)
Judy Conti, government affairs director for the National Employment Law Project, said the $15 minimum wage bill would still pass the House if every member who voted for it last year did so again, though the margin would be tighter. She also noted the popularity of the proposal with voters, pointing to a successful ballot measure in Florida last month that will raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 by 2026. That measure required 60% approval as an amendment to the state constitution; it ended up with 60.82%.
Conti said she is confident there will be movement on the issue regardless of what happens in Georgia.
“We plan to come out of the gate strong with a campaign as soon as the new Congress is set,” she said. “We will be urging [House] leadership to move this quickly. We’re going to push like hell to get this on the Senate floor as well. It’s absolutely shameful that we keep the minimum wage this low.”
But even if Democrats manage to win both Senate seats in Georgia, they would still need to persuade more members in the caucus to support the $15 proposal in order for it to pass and head to Biden’s desk. Several Democrats so far have declined to co-sponsor the bill in the Senate ― including moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (Ariz.) ― despite the concept of a $15 minimum wage growing more mainstream each year.
It can be easier to pass bold proposals like last year’s House bill when there is no chance they’d become law under a divided Congress. If Democrats were on the cusp of actually phasing in a $15 wage floor, vulnerable members would feel tremendous pressure from businesses. That’s especially true if they pursue an end to the “tip credit” that allows for a lower minimum wage in restaurants ― an issue the industry has mobilized around in local political fights. Last year’s House bill phased out the credit over the course of several years.
Michael Saltsman, managing director of the Employment Policies Institute, an industry-aligned group that opposes minimum wage hikes, predicted that even some House Democrats who previously supported the bill could get wobbly and that their target wage level might drop.
“Behind the scenes, it was not a sure thing that $15 was going to pass the House,” Saltsman said. “Obviously, if Republicans keep the Senate for at least the next two years, at the federal level you’re probably not going to be having a conversation about the minimum wage. Does it come down to Georgia?… If [Democrats] pull out a miracle in Georgia, maybe they move a $12 minimum wage.”
Anything less than $15 could disappoint the progressive wing of the party, especially since the minimum wage has already gone the longest stretch ever without an increase. Fifteen has become the rallying cry of the union-led Fight for $15 worker campaign that began in fast food and spread to other industries.
“It’s really not the time to talk about compromising on raising it to $15 or not,” said Conti. “It’s got to happen on a somewhat aggressive schedule to reset wages for this country as a whole.”
At the same time, compromising at $12 might still not be enough to bring any Republicans on board in the Senate if Democrats need them.
We’re going to push like hell to get this on the Senate floor. Judy Conti, National Employment Law Project
Indeed, for all the popularity of raising the minimum wage, November’s elections showed once again that GOP politicians pay little to no political price for not doing it. Florida voters passed their minimum wage ballot initiative with a supermajority, yet Trump still managed to carry the state by more than three points. Plenty of voters are obviously capable of supporting the higher wage floor as well as the candidate who would stand in the way of one.
“The question is not whether or not increasing the minimum age is wildly popular. Florida didn’t answer that question ― that had been answered long before,” Murphy said. “Republicans have never let the popularity of the minimum wage affect their opposition to it.”
Regardless of how the Senate shakes out, progressive groups plan to pressure Biden to implement an executive order raising the minimum wage to $15 for workers under federal contracts. The president can put such mandates on employers who accept federal dollars, as Obama did in 2014 when he signed an executive order requiring minimum pay of $10.10.
Jennifer Epps-Addison, president of the progressive Center for Popular Democracy, said well-organized pressure campaigns are still the key to minimum wage hikes at the local and federal levels. She sees a federal increase as possible if Democrats win in Georgia, but she believes a lot of work remains to push $15 over the line even within the party.
She said a think-tank report would not persuade Manchin, but that the number of West Virginians who “organize themselves and make their voice known to him” would have an impact.
“If the party lined up and he was a key vote, what sways him won’t be anything we can say to him,” Epps-Addison said. “It will be what people on the ground can show him.”