Minimum wage hike all but dead in big COVID relief bill

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Activists appeal for a $15 minimum wage near the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill being prepped in Congress includes a provision that over five years would hike the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

WASHINGTON – Democrats' hopes of including a minimum wage increase in their $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill seemed all but dead Monday as the Senate prepared to debate its own version of the House-passed aid package.

Four days after the chamber’s parliamentarian said Senate rules forbid inclusion of a straight-out minimum wage increase in the relief measure, Democrats seemed to have exhausted their most realistic options for quickly salvaging the pay hike. In one decision, they abandoned a potential amendment threatening tax increases on big companies that don't boost workers’ pay to certain levels.

“At this moment, we may not have a path but I hope we can find one” for pushing the federal pay floor to $15 an hour, said No. 2 Senate Democratic leader Richard Durbin of Illinois.

Senate Democrats hope to unveil their version of the broad relief package and begin debate as early as Wednesday. Congressional leaders want to send President Joe Biden the legislation combating the pandemic and bolstering the economy by March 14, the date emergency jobless benefits that lawmakers approved in December expire.

The overall relief bill is Biden’s biggest early legislative priority. It looms as an initial test of his ability to unite Democrats in the Senate — where the party has no votes to spare — and risks lasting damage to his influence should he fail. Republicans are strongly against the legislation and could well oppose it unanimously, as House GOP lawmakers did when that chamber approved the bill early Saturday.

The measure would provide $1,400 payments to individuals plus hundreds of billions of dollars for schools and colleges, COVID-19 vaccines and testing, mass transit systems, renters and small businesses. It also has money for child care, tax breaks for families with children and assistance for states willing to expand Medicaid coverage for low-income residents.

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said he wanted Democrats to ignore the parliamentarian's ruling blocking the minimum wage increase. He also wants them to vote to eliminate filibusters — procedural delays that would take an unachievable 60 votes for Democrats to prevail.

Neither idea seemed to have the support among Democrats or the White House needed to succeed. But Sanders, the Senate's lead sponsor of the hike to $15, said he'd force a vote on an amendment restoring the minimum wage increase anyway.