The Democrats' proposed $15-an-hour minimum wage is on the ropes, but an unlikely group could revive it: populist and nationalist Republicans loyal to former President Donald Trump.
Steve Cortes, a veteran of Trump's 2016 and 2020 campaigns, has included it alongside conservative populist staples "border sovereignty" and "toughness in trade" as part of a three-pronged "American First economic nationalist agenda to lift wages."
"Let's embrace the $15-an-hour minimum wage," Cortes said in a video circulated during the Conservative Political Action Conference. "It makes economic sense, and it has been unchanged in this country since 2009. It is long past time for an increase."
Cortes also pointed to the idea's popularity in a state that has become critical to Republican political fortunes, and which was also the site of CPAC, moved from Maryland's Washington suburbs due to the pandemic. A ballot initiative increasing the minimum wage to this amount passed in Florida with 61% of the vote at the same time Trump was edging out President Biden in the Sunshine State.
Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Marco Rubio, and Rep. Matt Gaetz, all to varying degrees Trump allies, are up for reelection in Florida next year. The state's other senator, Rick Scott, is chairing the National Republican Senatorial Committee in a bid to return the 50-50 chamber to GOP control.
But there have been rumblings about this issue beyond Florida. Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, proposed a $15-an-hour minimum wage for companies with revenues of $1 billion or more. He would index this figure to the national median wage after 2025.
"For decades, the wages of everyday, working Americans have remained stagnant while monopoly corporations have consolidated industry after industry, securing record profits for CEOs and investment bankers," Hawley said in a statement. "Mega-corporations can afford to pay their workers $15 an hour, and it's long past time they do so, but this should not come at the expense of small businesses already struggling to make it."
Hawley has also introduced legislation creating an advanceable tax credit connected to hours worked for workers being paid less than median wage by smaller businesses, dubbing the $200 billion plan the "Blue Collar Bonus."
Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who has increasingly sought to position himself as a Trump-friendly populist, and Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican who represents a state the former president twice won by more than 40 points, have teamed with relative centrists such as Sens. Mitt Romney of Utah, Susan Collins of Maine, and Rob Portman of Ohio to pair an increase in the federal minimum wage with stepped-up immigration enforcement.
"American workers today compete against millions of illegal immigrants for too few jobs with wages that are too low — that's unfair," Cotton said in a statement. "Ending the black market for illegal labor will open up jobs for Americans. Raising the minimum wage will allow Americans filling those jobs to better support their families. Our bill does both."
"It's been more than a decade since the federal minimum wage has been increased, leaving millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet," Romney, a Never Trumper who nevertheless touted immigration enforcement in his own 2012 presidential campaign, concurred. "Our proposal would raise wages for nearly 3.5 million workers without costing jobs. Additionally, requiring employers to use E-Verify would ensure that businesses only hire legal workers — eliminating a key driver of illegal immigration."
Their bill would only raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour, making it a nonstarter to most Democrats. Even Sen. Joe Manchin, the West Virginia centrist who is the main Democratic opponent of $15 an hour, favors $11. Still, it could be the basis of some future compromise.
Senate Democrats lost a battle to include the minimum wage hike in the COVID-19 relief package they intend to pass through budget reconciliation after the chamber's parliamentarian ruled the provision violated the Byrd rule. This means any separate attempt to raise the minimum wage would be subject to a filibuster, in effect raising the threshold for enactment from 51 votes to 60.
The Biden administration favored the minimum wage increase's inclusion in the package but declined to have Vice President Kamala Harris try to overrule the Senate parliamentarian. Democrats appear to have 49 votes at best for a $15-an-hour minimum wage at present and perhaps have fewer than that.
"The vast majority of Democrats favor raising the minimum wage, but you've got some of your colleagues who are in tougher districts," a Democratic strategist said. "There is also a well-worn tradition for the House blaming the Senate for not being able to pass agenda items that can more easily pass through the lower chamber."
GOP populists could give them some extra votes. A Politico/Morning Consult poll found that 51% of Republican voters support raising the minimum wage above its current $7.25, but only 16% are in favor of boosting it all the way to $15. More than 1 in 3 could support $11.
Conservative-led business groups remain steadfastly opposed to minimum wage hikes, especially amid the economic slowdown created by the pandemic. Alfredo Ortiz of the Job Creators Network said the "razor-thin margins" of the hospitality industry and other small businesses would be especially threatened, as bigger companies like Amazon seek to eliminate competition.