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Democrats' push for a minimum wage hike faces a make-or-break test as the Senate parliamentarian readies a decision about whether the provision can remain in the coronavirus relief package in addition to resistance from some in the party against a boost to $15 an hour.

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The party is working toward passing a $1.

9 trillion COVID-19 bill through budget reconciliation, enabling Democrats, who narrowly control a 50-50 Senate, to do so without needing any Republican support. In the overall package, Democrats have inserted a provision that would raise the federal hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 by 2025.

But the limitations of the reconciliation process – and the opposition of at least two Democratic senators – threaten a key party priority pushed for years by progressives and elevated more recently by the Biden administration. And it'll be the first major test of party unity and resiliency since Democrats won back the presidency and Senate majority.

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First, the fate of a $15 minimum wage hike will be in the hands of Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough, who is tasked with ensuring that the chamber stays within the rules. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders of Vermont and other Democrats and Republicans will meet Wednesday with MacDonough about the inclusion of the minimum wage provision. Sanders says he expects a final decision by Wednesday or Thursday.

The so-called Byrd Rule, named after the late Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, governs what provisions end up in bills that use the reconciliation process as a vehicle for passage. The rule prohibits "extraneous" measures unrelated to the budget or ones that would raise the federal deficit beyond a 10-year window.

Schumer and Sanders have projected confidence that the $15 minimum wage measure will qualify under reconciliation even as others brace for the growing likelihood of alternatives or modifications.

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"The first step is to go before the parliamentarian. That will occur on Wednesday, Bernie Sanders and I are arguing very strongly for $15 and for it to be reconcilable," Schumer said at a Tuesday press conference. "We're going to await her judgment before we go any further."

But even if MacDonough greenlights the provision in the rescue package, minimum wage isn't a done deal and neither is the amount.

Democrats need all 50 senators on board to pass COVID-19 aid and at least two moderates have signaled their opposition to a $15 minimum wage: Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

Under reconciliation, bills can pass with a simple majority of 51 senators, and any tie would be broken by Vice President Kamala Harris. If they get no GOP votes, Democrats can't afford any defections.

Top Democrats, including the White House, are insisting this week they remain committed to a $15 minimum wage, but the small, yet crucial, opposition could force the party to negotiate and consider alternatives like Manchin's proposal of an increase to $11 an hour.

Manchin has voiced concerns about how a $15 minimum wage hike could hurt small businesses, particularly during a pandemic, and believes a more moderate increase would be more beneficial to states like West Virginia. Sinema, meanwhile, told Politico in an interview last week that a minimum wage provision "is not appropriate" for the budget reconciliation process.

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But Sanders is still pushing for the full amount – something he's rallied around since his first presidential run in 2016 – and noted polling that shows the broad support for $15.

"We've got tens of millions of workers working for starvation wages," Sanders told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday. "Fifteen dollars an hour is not a radical idea. A number of states have moved in that direction."

The White House has also said that President Joe Biden "stands" by the $15 minimum wage hike but punted on questions about whether he'd be open to compromise and consider something like Manchin's $11-an-hour proposal.

"There's going to be a process that works its way through the Senate. We don't even know where it's going to end up, outside of when it works its way through the 'Byrd bath,'" White House press secretary Jen Psaki said at Tuesday's briefing, referring to the Byrd Rule. "And we expect that to happen in the next couple days and then we'll see where it goes from there."

If the parliamentarian ultimately rules against the provision, Democrats would likely need to pursue a minimum wage increase through stand-alone legislation. Passage would be much more challenging since the bill would need to clear a 60-vote threshold with support from at least 10 Senate Republicans.

There's at least some emerging interest among GOP members that slightly heightens the chances for compromise, though hurdles would still remain high.

GOP Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas proposed raising the minimum wage to $10 by 2025 with an added provision requiring businesses to use the E-verify system to prevent them from hiring immigrants living in the country illegally.

"I think the recognition that we need to raise the minimum wage and tie it to an inflator makes sense, and then I think linking that with a system that enforces our immigration laws and prevents people from coming here illegally and taking away jobs from from people at the entry level of our economy, it makes a lot of sense," Romney told reporters on Tuesday.

The House will vote on overall COVID-19 relief, including the $15 minimum wage hike, later this week or over the weekend, which will then move it back to the Senate. Democrats remain determined to pass the rescue package before March 14 – the expiration of enhanced federal unemployment benefits.

Lisa Hagen, Reporter

Lisa Hagen is a politics reporter for U.S. News & World Report covering Congress, the 2020 ...  Read more

Tags: Joe Biden, minimum wage, Congress, Bernie Sanders, employment, federal budget, politics, United States, Washington Whispers

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CoronavirusSpring Break COVID-19 Mayhem Is Coming for Florida

MIAMI—Early Tuesday evening, a quartet of maskless, twentysomething beachgoers scanned the laminated menu near the outdoor seating area of Kantina, a Mexican restaurant on Ocean Drive in Miami Beach, Florida. The popular party strip was teeming with people looking to soak up booze and three-star cuisine amid a global pandemic that, at least until recently, appeared to be slowly ebbing away as vaccinations ramp up across the United States.

Still, Candelaria Mesa, the 23-year-old hostess manning the entrance to Kantina, told The Daily Beast now was the time for every food-service worker in Miami Beach to put their guard up. This week, she said, the first horde of Spring Breakers arrived in the city, posing a renewed threat that new COVID-19 cases would spike after more than a month of decline.

“I think Spring Break is going to be crazy and the cases are going to shoot up,” Mesa said through a black cloth mask. “People are out here partying and don’t take precautions seriously.”

    The young woman explained that her co-workers were anxious to get the shots as party season set in.

    “I went to this bar the other night and it was COVID central.”— Marco Gonzalez

    “I know people here who are older than me and one who has asthma that want [the vaccine],” Mesa said. “And they should be able to get it.”

    Likewise, Marco Gonzalez, a 46-year-old waiter at Smith and Wollensky steakhouse about 10 city blocks from Kantina, told The Daily Beast he would love to get the vaccine, but doesn’t know when he will be allowed to do so. Under the vaccination pecking order established by Gov. Ron DeSantis, food service, grocery store, and retail employees are in limbo—even as the state has no mask mandate and in fact prevents localities from enforcing their own.

    “Absolutely, the vaccine should be available to us,” Gonzalez said. “We come into contact with hundreds of people a day. Most people at my restaurant have said they can’t wait to get the vaccine.”

    Gonzalez said he felt relatively safe at work because Smith and Wollensky implemented stringent protocols to minimize coronavirus outbreaks among staff. But that’s not the case with every drinking and food establishment in South Beach, he added.

    “I went to this bar the other night and it was COVID central,” Gonzalez said. “No one was wearing masks and it was packed to the hilt. I was like, ‘yeesh,’ and I got out of there.”

    Earlier this week, Gov. DeSantis expanded the pool of who can get immunizations to law enforcement officers, firefighters, and school employees who are 50 and older. Previously, the governor zeroed in on getting frontline health-care workers and seniors 65 and older vaccinated. As of March 1, Florida has vaccinated 14 percent of the state’s 21 million people.

    But the governor’s relentless approach to reopening Florida could intensify the spread of new coronavirus variants as college kids descend on the Sunshine State to let loose. During his State of the State speech in Tallahassee this week, DeSantis said he welcomes more visitors to Florida to keep the state economy’s humming along. That kind of thinking makes it even more imperative to give service industry workers their shots a lot sooner, according to infectious disease experts in Florida.

    Spokespersons for DeSantis and the Florida Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment.

    To be sure, the state is in a much better place than it was several weeks ago. Daily new COVID-19 cases have declined since late January. Since Feb. 1, the daily positivity rate has fluctuated between 5.2 percent and 7.4 percent. On Monday, Florida had a 5.6 percent daily positivity rate. During the same time period, Florida cracked 10,000 new cases a day only twice, on Feb. 1 and Feb. 5.

    Florida is far from breaking through the pandemic, though. The influx of Spring Breakers, even though crowds are unlikely to be as intense as years past, is a looming threat, especially with the state leading the nation in the number of new, more contagious—and possibly deadlier—variant cases. According to the Miami Herald, University of Miami researchers found that the B.1.1.7 strain, or the U.K. variant, caused 25 percent of recent infections in nearly 500 samples taken from patients treated in Miami-area public hospitals. They also found samples of variants first sequenced in Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Aruba, Israel, and New York.

    Vaccinating people who work in hospitality and retail is essential if Florida is going to allow out-of-state, college-aged tourists to turn up down here, Dr. Edwin Michael, a University of South Florida epidemiology professor, told The Daily Beast.

    “You have to safeguard the industries that are serving those who come for Spring Break,” Michael said. “The problem has been that we don’t have enough vaccines, so the strategy has been to safeguard the older population.”

      That is also the most politically favorable option for DeSantis. “Yes, politics definitely plays a role in this,” Michael said. “Young people don’t vote, while elderly people do. But if you are allowing people to come for Spring Break to have some economic activity, then you definitely have to begin vaccinating service economy workers as well.”

      As Florida’s vaccine allotment continues to grow with the addition of the recently approved Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine, “the time has really come to start pushing vaccines to the 20- to 49-year-olds,” Michael added.

      “If you’re gonna use us for your political ambitions, pay us in vaccines.”— Adam Gersten

      In a perfect world, the state would be supplying hospitality and retail workers with N95 and K95 masks until they become eligible for vaccines, Dr. Thomas Unnach, also a University of South Florida infectious disease professor, told The Daily Beast. “Spring Break will [create] a fairly high-risk environment, I think,” Unnach said. “Unfortunately, these masks are not readily available and we can’t provide them to every frontline worker. That is the dilemma we are facing now.”

      In other words, Florida’s hospitality workers have to fend for themselves during Spring Break a year into a gruesome pandemic.

      Adam Gersten, owner of Gramps, a popular bar in Miami’s Wynwood neighborhood, said he’s held off on loosening restrictions at his watering hole—despite being allowed to do so—because he’s “very worried” about Spring Breakers charging into town.

      “That’s why we haven’t relaxed protocol,” Gersten said. “When they leave and it’s rainy, hot, and shitty, we will take a look.”

      Gramps is currently open for outdoor seating only with 50 percent capacity and patrons have to wear masks even when belting out tunes during the bar’s weekly karaoke night, Gersten said. If they had access to vaccines, it would give him and his crew peace of mind.

      “It makes it that much safer to be around groups of people even in a tightly-controlled spot like ours,” Gersten said. “Also, the fact that restaurant, bar, and hospitality workers were to get vaccinated would project that there is momentum toward a workable new way of life that is leaps and bounds better than where we are at now.”

      In explaining why he won’t shut down businesses again, DeSantis often cites the need to keep people employed and earning money. But if the governor wants to use service industry workers as political pawns, it’s only fair that the he prioritize them in the vaccination line, Gersten said.

      “I think people who are considered essential—specifically those in hospitality, grocery stores, and high-volume places that he is touting as signs of his decisions to remain open were the right ones—deserve the vaccines,” Gersten said. “If you’re gonna use us for your political ambitions, pay us in vaccines.”

      Francisco Alvarado@thefrankness

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