Democratic Senators Shy Away From Bernie Sanders’ $17 Minimum Wage Increase

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  • Democratic senators have signaled they do not support Bernie Sanders’s proposal to raise the minimum wage to $17 within five years.
  • Sanders, a progressive leader, announced the proposal on Thursday, arguing that there would be “political consequences” if Democrats don’t raise the federal wage, which is currently $7.25.
  • Democrats currently have a slim Senate majority of 50 seats, and losing one vote means the bill won’t pass.

Several Democratic Senators have signaled they do not support Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont’s proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $17 within five years.

Sanders announced the proposal on Thursday afternoon at the U.S. Capitol, stating that he would hold a markup for the bill on June 14 as Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee. At least three Democratic Senators, however, are unlikely to support the plan, which has been supported by progressive organizations and raises questions about whether the measure will pass the Senate, where Democrats have a majority. (RELATED: ‘They Abandoned Their Cause’: Sanders Tells Maher That Republicans Have More Working-Class Adherents Than Dems)

“Just getting to $15 is a lot of work…We have a long way,” said Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania to The Hill. Casey, who last month announced that he would run for re-election to a fourth term in 2024, sits on the HELP committee and represents a swing state that has frequently influenced presidential elections and control of the Senate.

Other senior Democrats expressed hesitation on the bill. Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, a close ally of President Joe Biden who occupies the seat he once held, has called for a more gradual process. “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.

Coons was one of eight Democratic Senators who voted with Republicans to oppose Sanders’ budget amendment in 2021 to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The others include Democrats running for re-election in 2024, such as Sen. Jon Tester of Montana.

Their opposition comes as progressive organizations have pressed Democrats, who hold a Senate majority, to pass legislation raising the minimum wage, even though it is unlikely to pass the House with its Republican majority.

“[We] struggle to feed our kids and pay our bills. We demand higher pay…we need to raise the minimum wage across the board,” said Tara Thompson of the Union of Southern Service Workers, joining Sanders as he announced the proposal. “Even $15 isn’t enough for what we’re going through,” said Marmacookie Bradley, one of the union’s founders, adding that “the cost of living is getting higher every day.”

Sanders, who is credited with shifting the Democratic Party to the left over his two presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, is known to introduce new ideas lacking majority support in the party, in order to build consensus around them. In his remarks introducing the proposal, he said that wages below $17 were “starvation wages…unacceptable…a national disgrace,” noting that Congress had not acted to raise the minimum wage since 2007 when they set it at $7.25 per hour, and that “political consequences” would ensue if they didn’t.

However, while the federal minimum wage has not changed, many states have enacted laws raising the minimum wage for workers within their jurisdiction. The nation’s highest minimum wage is in the District of Columbia, at $16.10, per the Economic Policy Institute, and is set to increase to $17 in July.

Where the minimum wage has been raised, the measures have been met with strong opposition from business groups, such as in New York, where Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a law raising the state’s minimum wage to $17 for New York City and surrounding areas, and $16 upstate, over the next three years.

“Additional mandates to increase wages for the agriculture industry will put New York’s food security at risk, jeopardize our food supply chains and ripple throughout our rural economies across the state,” the coalition wrote on its website.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, Sanders, Coons, Casey and Tester, as well as Democratic Senate candidates Ruben Gallego and Colin Allred, have been contacted for a comment.

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