Bobby Scott

Centrists are pitching their plan as a compromise to Rep. Bobby Scott, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Congress

Moderate Dems look to break logjam on minimum wage boost

Ideological divisions have stalled a top priority for the new majority.

A band of Democratic moderates in the House is working to end a standoff with progressives on legislation to boost the minimum wage — potentially resolving a fight that has stalled one of the party’s top priorities.

Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Ariz.) is leading an effort to make tweaks that could help deliver at least a half-dozen moderates onto the $15-an-hour wage bill without losing many on the left.

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The initial struggle on the measure, a core part of the Democratic agenda, underscores the ideological divisions that have tested the new majority.

The moderates’ plan would still offer a path to doubling the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour over five years, but would come with an insurance option of sorts, according to multiple aides: a requirement that the Government Accountability Office conduct a study on the policy’s economic effects after roughly two years.

The House Education and Labor Committee would then have a chance to recommend what action — if any — House leadership should take. The amendment, which is still being drafted, has not yet been publicly released.

The proposal could pose a problem for some liberal lawmakers, who are refusing to do anything that they see as watering down the party’s promise to reach a federal $15-an-hour minimum wage.

“In Washington, when you don't want to do something, you say, let’s study it,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) said of the moderates’ plan.

Other progressives, however, have said they could be open to the tweak as long as it doesn’t slow down the five-year rollout of the bill.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters Wednesday that some changes are being considered, which he said would make sure the bill is "fair," but did not elaborate on details.

Democrats like O'Halleran, who is co-chair of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, hope the amendment wins over moderates who are otherwise anxious about voting for a policy that Republicans are likely to accuse of being a job-killer — even though the GOP-controlled Senate is sure to ignore the legislation if it’s passed by the House.

Centrists are pitching their plan as a compromise to Rep. Bobby Scott, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, who is looking to bring the bill to the floor sometime this summer.

Scott has not weighed in on O’Halleran’s proposal but suggested he could convince skeptics on his own.

“I think we’ll get to 218 as we are. We’re obviously open to negotiation,” Scott said in an interview last week when asked about O’Halleran’s proposal.

So far, Scott and his allies have rounded up 205 co-sponsors for the minimum wage bill, which they see as a crucial promise that helped deliver Democrats the majority. Still, they’re more than a dozen votes shy of bringing the bill to the floor, according to multiple lawmakers and aides.

Meanwhile, progressives are growing restless to pass the first minimum wage hike in a decade.

O'Halleran and Scott have also worked closely with another key moderate who is already in favor of the $15-an-hour proposal — another Blue Dog co-chair, Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) — to shore up the 218 votes needed on the floor.

Murphy’s district in Central Florida has a high cost of living, and its largest employer, Walt Disney World Resorts, has already made plans to gradually hike worker pay to $15 per hour.

The issue is largely a regional divide.

Many of the Democrats who have so far refused to sign on to the bill come from red states, like Oklahoma and Texas, which use the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour and are reluctant to endorse a bill that local businesses in their districts might see as a death sentence.

Progressives, meanwhile, have pointed to success stories in places like Seattle, where families have been pulled out of poverty with a minimum wage increase that is gradually rising to $15 per hour

“The concerns I have right now are: OK, the minimum wage in San Francisco means nothing, nobody’s getting paid $15 an hour. [But] $15 an hour in Arkansas or Arizona, or other states, is a whole different story. So, how are we breaking that down?” said Rep. Jeff Van Drew (D-N.J.), who has yet to co-sponsor the minimum wage bill but said he's interested in O'Halleran's plan.

“I do want to see people make a decent wage," Van Drew said.

Many of the Democratic holdouts, like Reps. Lucy McBath of Georgia and Dean Phillips of Minnesota, have been insisting on a more cautious approach to raising the minimum wage. They prefer a competing plan that would establish a “regional” minimum wage, which was introduced by Rep. Terri Sewell of Alabama last month and has a dozen co-sponsors.

Some moderate Democrats, like Reps. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, have co-sponsored both Scott's and Sewell's proposals.

But Scott also faces fierce pressure from the left, with the leaders of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — with its 96 members — unwilling to accept changes that would be seen as weakening the $15-an-hour proposal.

"The reality is, the federal minimum wage would be over $21 if it was indexed for inflation," Rep. Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the CPC, said in an interview. "When you say [$15] is too much, too much for whom?"

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