Democrats, Republicans reject minimum wage rise, wrangle over federal unemployment benefits
US Senate Democrats’ effort to advance President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid bill stalled on Friday as senators jousted over how long to extend enhanced unemployment benefits and how much to offer during the pandemic.
After the Senate defeated a last-ditch attempt by some of Biden’s fellow Democrats to raise the federal minimum wage, work on his first major legislative package ground to a halt for hours as senators met behind closed doors to find a way forward.
“We’re completely stalled out,” number-two Senate Republican John Thune told reporters.
Unemployment compensation was the focus, although it was just one of many battles ahead on the sweeping bill, as the Senate braced to deal with dozens of amendments and a debate likely to extend into the weekend.
The legislation calls for providing $400 per week in federal jobless benefits through August to help Americans who have lost jobs amid the pandemic.
Liberal and moderate senators agreed on a compromise that would set the federal benefit at $300 per week, on top of existing state benefits, through September.
Republican Senator Rob Portman is advocating a competing plan with the support of business groups that would put the benefit at $300, but only through mid-July.
Moderate Democratic Senator Joe Manchin, a pivotal vote in the closely divided Senate, had been pushing to lower the benefit from the bill’s present $400. Republicans said Manchin was being pressured by Democrats to stick with their compromise and not support Portman’s plan.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said the delay in the Senate was “to break somebody’s political arm” and that Biden’s promise of bipartisanship was ringing hollow.
“To President Biden: Is this the new way of doing business?” Graham said to reporters.
Senator Dick Durbin, the chamber’s number-two Democrat, told reporters there were efforts under way to find “some common ground” between the Democratic and Republican proposals.
Senators rejected a proposal by Senator Bernie Sanders to more than double the $7.25-per-hour federal minimum wage to $15 across five years. Sanders called the current level a “starvation” wage that has been in place for more than a decade.
Democrats hold a slim majority in the Senate and House of Representatives. Congress is scrambling to complete work on the legislation so it can be signed into law before March 14, when some existing pandemic-related benefits are due to expire.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is walking a tightrope as he tries to steer the bill through the Senate, aiming to keep Senate liberals and moderates happy while not alienating House Democrats.
With no votes to spare, Senate Democrats must keep all 50 of their members on board, allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the deciding vote if no Republicans support the bill.
Senate approval of the legislation would send it back to the House of Representatives which must approve the revised bill before sending it to Biden for his signature.