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Top Democrat endorses gradual $15 minimum wage during pandemic to help folks 'make rent,' buy food

'The way the president is looking at it in terms of phasing it in, I think, is the way to go and I'm for it,' Senate Finance Committee Chairman Wyden says

Updated: February 22, 2021 - 8:16pm

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Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden said the Biden administration's plan to gradually raise the minimum wage to $15 within the next four years should be in the next coronavirus relief package because it will help folks "make rent and buy groceries" during the pandemic. 

House Democrats have included a minimum wage increase to $15 by 2025 in their $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus bill. Some Republicans have criticized the move, saying a pandemic is not a good time to raise the minimum wage, given how many small businesses, particularly restaurants, are struggling to keep their doors open. 

Wyden was asked if Senate Democrats would alter the gradual minimum wage plan if the Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough rules that the minimum wage provision can pass in the stimulus bill under the reconciliation rules. 

The budget reconciliation process would allow Democrats to pass the stimulus bill without GOP votes. The reconciliation tool has not been used for a stimulus package in the past.

"With respect to the [reconciliation] process, I have been checking in, you know, literally, hour after hour on the whole process. It is going well. You've got this unique process, known as reconciliation, it wouldn't be a word that most people would be up on, you know, reconciliation. And it's vital that every part follows the rules," Wyden replied during a press briefing. "And my staff and I are just working pretty much around the clock to make sure that's the case."

The timing of the parliamentarian's final ruling on the minimum wage is unclear.

Wyden then said he wanted to put the importance of the $1.9 trillion stimulus bill into context "from a macroeconomic standpoint." 

"Right at the heart of this package is getting as many people vaccinated as possible. Once you do that, I believe that employers will be hiring, we'll see as a result of employers hiring, that bumps up wages. Then we want to make sure that folks are making enough in order to make rent and buy groceries and this minimum wage, you know, approach and the way the president has been looking at it in terms of phasing it in, I think, is the way to go and I'm for it," he said.

The House version of the stimulus bill includes $7 billion for food assistance programs and $30 billion for emergency rental assistance programs. It also includes a $400 federal weekly unemployment benefit on top of weekly state unemployment payments. 

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office recently projected that a gradual $15 minimum wage in Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID relief package would result in 1.4 million workers losing their jobs.