Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is creating a political headache for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) by pushing hard for a vote on a bill to raise the national minimum wage to $17 an hour — a proposal Senate Democrats facing tough reelection races opposed in 2021.
Sanders, who remains very popular with the Democratic Party’s progressive base, warned Thursday there would be “political consequences” for lawmakers who oppose his effort.
“We’re going to push it as quickly and hard as we can,” Sanders told reporters at a Thursday press conference.
“Right now we’re focusing on making sure that we have the votes in the Senate and the House to raise the minimum wage,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a state in the country where people do not believe we should raise the minimum wage. I would hope that every member of Congress understands and there will be political consequences … if they don’t.”
Sanders’s proposal to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $17 an hour over five years is an updated version of the proposal he pushed in 2021 to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which eight Senate Democrats voted against.
Three of those senators face tough reelection races: Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.), who left the Democratic Party in December to become an Independent.
Schumer wants to protect his vulnerable colleagues from taking tough votes before the 2024 election, when Democrats will have to defend 23 seats to keep their narrow Senate majority.
Republicans have only 10 seats up for reelection next year.
Manchin said in 2021 he would instead support raising the minimum wage to $11 an hour and indexing it for inflation.
Tester at the time voiced concern about imposing a sudden and dramatic increase in the minimum wage.
“I think the minimum wage needs to come up. But I think we need to extend it out a ways before it hits the $15 figure,” he said.
And Sinema came under a storm of criticism that year for giving the Senate floor clerk a little curtsy and a thumbs down when she voted against adding the wage provision to the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan.
Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Chris Coons (D-Del.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Angus King (I-Maine) also voted against it.
Sanders said last year he would consider supporting primary challengers against Manchin and Sinema in the 2024 election cycle after they also refused to support a change to the Senate’s filibuster rule to pass voting rights legislation.
Manchin is not expected to face any serious challenge in the Democratic primary, but Sinema, if she runs for a second term, would do so as an independent and likely face a Republican and Democratic opponent in the general election.
Sanders on Thursday declined to say whether he will support Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who is running for Sinema’s seat, or another Democratic challenger in the Arizona Senate race.
Neither Manchin nor Sinema have announced whether they will run for new terms.
Schumer didn’t schedule another vote on raising the minimum wage in the last Congress after Sanders’s minimum wage proposal was blocked by a vote of 58-42.
And the Democratic leader is not expected to schedule a vote before the next election on a $17-an-hour minimum wage proposal that’s likely to divide his caucus. It wouldn’t muster the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster and would have little-to-no chance of passing the Republican-controlled House.
Furthermore, voting on a $17-an-hour national minimum wage proposal would carry political risk for vulnerable Democratic incumbents running in Republican-leaning states like Montana and West Virginia.
The proposal is already drawing criticism from business allies.
The Employment Policies Institute, a nonprofit research organization that has been linked to the restaurant industry, said Sanders’s proposal will result in two million lost jobs.
“Economists have demonstrated how harmful this unprecedented increase will be. Yet Sanders and his union allies are choosing politics over employees for bad policy that’s already been rejected by members of Sanders’s own party,” said Michael Saltsman, executive director of the group.
Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who is running for reelection in a state that Trump carried in 2016 but Biden narrowly won in 2020, said he would need to review Sanders’s proposal before making a decision on how to vote.
Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is set at the federal minimum level: $7.25 per hour.
“I’m looking at that bill now,” said Casey, who sits on the HELP Committee, which Sanders chairs.
“We have a long way to get to $15. The governor is pushing pretty hard on $15 [an hour,]” he said, referring to Pennsylvania’s Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro. “Just getting to $15 is a lot of work.”
Coons and Shaheen explained Thursday they are not necessarily opposed to raising the federal minimum wage. They said they voted against Sanders’s proposal two years ago because they didn’t like how it was structured.
“My concern actually had to do with the tipped wage,” Coons said. “But not the $15.
“The most important thing we can do is pass an increase in the minimum wage that includes an escalator, so we don’t have this step function where we don’t raise it for 15 years and then we raise it by a lot,” he said.
He said there are many things to balance, and the impact of raising the minimum wage on inflation is one of them.
Shaheen said she hasn’t seen what Sanders is proposing but emphasized she does not oppose the idea of raising the minimum wage.
“My opposition wasn’t to the minimum wage, it was the way they were structuring the bill,” she said. “I think we need to raise the minimum wage; I want to make sure we do it in a way that includes all industries.”