Democratic Strategists Talk Ongoing Fight To Raise Minimum Wage NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Maria Cardona and David Sirota about the divide in the party over how to pursue a federal minimum wage increase.

Democratic Strategists Talk Ongoing Fight To Raise Minimum Wage

Democratic Strategists Talk Ongoing Fight To Raise Minimum Wage

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NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Maria Cardona and David Sirota about the divide in the party over how to pursue a federal minimum wage increase.


We're going to start today by taking a look at the ongoing fight to raise the federal minimum wage. Earlier today, the House passed President Biden's $1.9 trillion relief package, which is intended to help the country recover from the wreckage left by the coronavirus pandemic. But as it heads to the Senate, it will be missing one major element - the $15 minimum wage.

On Thursday, the Senate's top rule keeper said the provision is not in line with the rules that govern budget bills in the Senate. The decision means supporters have to find another way to achieve a top campaign promise for many Democrats, including President Biden, while they're also fighting to defend the relief bill that Republicans are also lining up to oppose.

Now, some have proposed taxes on companies that don't pay workers at least $15 an hour. Others think a more gradual, incremental increase is better. Since Republican lawmakers at least seem unified in their distaste for the measure, we figured the action is on the Democratic side, so we're going to focus there. So we've called Maria Cardona, Democratic strategist. She previously worked as a senior adviser and spokesperson for Hillary Clinton's 2008 campaign and President Obama's 2012 campaign.

Maria Cardona, nice to have you back with us.

MARIA CARDONA: Thank you so much for having me.

MARTIN: Also back with us is David Sirota. He is a former campaign speechwriter for Vermont senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who you might recall has been pushing for an increase in the federal minimum wage for years.

David Sirota, welcome back to you as well.

DAVID SIROTA: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, David, I'm just going to start with you. I'm just going to ask you to set the table for us since, you know, honestly, a fraction of American workers actually get the federal minimum wage, which is around $7 an hour. So why has this become such an important issue for Democrats?

SIROTA: Well, because the minimum wage is at a historic low. The Federal Reserve recently reported that it's at - literally in January at a low as a share of median wages in America. And, you know, we're in an economic crisis where wages are just not keeping up with people's expenses.

And this has been a longtime Democratic pledge. The minimum wage has not been raised in years, and it's, frankly, the least that should be done in the wealthiest country in the world. And it is now obviously caught in this battle over Senate rules that I'm sure we'll discuss a little bit more. But it is a huge promise from the Biden administration and the Democrats.

MARTIN: And, well, you've made your feelings clear about this. I mean, just this morning, you tweeted, quote, "the most powerful man in the world is cowering in fear of a parliamentarian." That's the official, the Senate official, who said that it shouldn't be part of the budget package. And then going on to your quote, you say then, "Democrats somehow wonder why so many Americans see them as weak, feckless cowards." So obviously, you feel strongly about this. What do you think President Biden should do? Should he fire the parliamentarian? Should he just ignore it?

SIROTA: So the notion of the Democrats blaming essentially one of their own advisers who issued a non-binding opinion, where Kamala Harris can simply as presiding officer of the Senate ignore that opinion and advance the minimum wage - the idea that this is the fault of - or is responsible, the parliamentarian is responsible for Democrats not being able to do anything, is just absurd and belied by the facts. And so then the question becomes, well, why are they trying to not do a $15 minimum wage? Why would you come up with an excuse not to do that?

MARTIN: What should they do?

SIROTA: Well, I think they should basically - Kamala Harris can simply ignore the parliamentarian. The budget bill can include the $15 minimum wage. When Mitch McConnell tries to oppose the minimum wage, Kamala Harris can simply say, your point of order is not recognized. And then the Republicans would need 60 votes to overturn Kamala Harris' move in that situation. That's the least that should be done right now.

MARTIN: OK. Maria, what do you think the Democrats should do right now? And do you agree, Maria, that the $15 federal minimum wage hike is something that should be a top priority?

CARDONA: There's no question that it should be a top priority. And I believe that it is a top priority for the Biden administration. But look. They are facing a lot of what they call top priorities. And frankly, his biggest - Biden's biggest campaign promise was to pass a COVID relief bill for the millions of Americans who are hurting, who have lost their jobs, who have lost their businesses.

And look. I agree that the $15 an hour minimum wage should be part of that solution. But the fact of the matter is, is that there are other things in the COVID relief bill that need to be passed now. And while, David - you know, I agree with him on everything that he said, the - what is working against us is time.

MARTIN: It's worth noting the Senate's split 50-50 to Democrats. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona say that they don't support such a large increase in the minimum wage. Essentially, the argument that they make is the same argument that a lot of Republicans make, which is that the economy is already hurting and that this advantages those who are working to the disadvantage of those who are not. And therefore, it's just too big of a jolt to businesses that are already kind of on the ropes. So how do you respond to that?

CARDONA: Yes, of course there are politics at play, which is why Manchin and Sinema are against it right now. They are looking at their own politics in their own states. And Manchin, frankly, when you have the last two presidentials that went - his state went for Trump by vast majorities, he knows that he has to play to his politics. And, you know, sadly, that is the case with Sinema as well.

So we need to do a better job. We as a Democratic Party and all of these states where we want to give some backing for our senators to ensure that they can support some of the stuff - we need to continue to push it. And that is something that hopefully will happen.

You talked about the economy, Michel. When the COVID relief plan passes, there are economists that say that the economy will take off. When the economy is in a much sturdier place, it will be a lot of - it will be a much stronger argument for senators like Manchin and Sinema to be able to make back home in their state that the economy can sustain this, especially if it is something that is done in a gradual manner, which is the way that it would be done when it's passed.

MARTIN: Before we let each of you go, I want to talk more broadly about that COVID relief bill. I mean, you can see that the - you know, it passed the House with all Democratic votes, and they actually lost two Democrats. No Republicans voted for it, despite the fact that Republicans have voted for previous relief packages.

And you can see the Republican campaign committees are already sort of teeing up against the people that they consider to be vulnerable. They're calling it - like, the House Republican Campaign Committee calling it a corrupt socialist wish list. They published the names of the people who they think are vulnerable, who they think should be kind of attacked, you know, for their support of it.

What do you make of that? I mean, if - again, what is it about this bill that's attracted so much hostility? And what do you make of that? And does that factor in at all in your thinking here?

SIROTA: Sure. This is a replay of the Tea Party and the Tea Party's opposition to Barack Obama's stimulus bill. That's what this is. It's cynical. It's a lot of nonsense. What they want to do is try to undermine the economy, to make the economy not grow as well as it needs to grow so that they can go into the midterm elections arguing essentially that the economy is not doing well, and that's Joe Biden's fault.

So the trap here is for - is if Democrats kowtow to that and cower to that - because it is a trap - that they have to actually move this bill forward with as much help for the American people as possible and not get caught, which is what Obama did. Obama got caught reducing the stimulus, if you remember, in the face of that Republican opposition to try to appease that Republican opposition. And it ended up being one of the weakest economic recoveries in the country's modern history. And the Republicans won the midterms right after that happened. So the Democrats need to learn from that past mistake and not try to reduce the COVID relief package to try to appease Republicans. That's exactly what the Republicans want them to do.

MARTIN: Maria, I'm going to ask you about this, too, because it's - because not to sort of tag you with sort of any particular kind of label, but the fact of the matter is, there are a lot of Democrats who see themselves on the bubble. You saw this in the 2020 elections. They felt that some of the themes that were most attractive to progressive Democrats, they felt were kind of toxic for them. You know, what's your take on how the Democrats should handle this?

CARDONA: Frankly, I think what Democrats need to do is to put it into the Republican - into Republican laps and say, what part of this are you against? Are you against giving Americans who so desperately need it, the relief that they want? Are you against giving schools the resources that they need to reopen?

MARTIN: Can I just interrupt?


MARTIN: They've made it clear what they're against. They're against a lot of it. They're against the infrastructure support. I mean, this is their - this is what - this is just the communication from the NRCC, the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee. They are - they call it $140 million for Nancy Pelosi's Silicon Valley subway, $570 million for a bureaucratic bailout that allows federal government employees to stay home with their kids and still get paid, slashes $36 billion from Medicare, up to $10 million for teachers' unions, $350 million for states and local governments.

They're - yes, there are - they are on the record about what they're against. They're against support for state and local governments and a lot of the infrastructure spending because they see it as sort of spendthrift Democratic policies.

CARDONA: So this is great politics because Joe Biden actually won the election eating into the Republican base of white, low-income voters. And so when this passes and starts helping low-income voters - and frankly, middle-class voters too, who have really been devastated by this crisis - then I think this is a great political message where - this is where, like, good policy is good politics because this is helping Americans across the board.

And I think it will be really tough for Republicans to be able to say that this was not something that should have passed. When they start seeing the economy really rebound, and they see their own base really being helped by this, it's going to be really hard for them to campaign against it in the midterm elections.

And frankly, to the issue that we started talking about, the minimum wage, when the economy starts taking off, it will be a big boost in making the argument that we can absolutely sustain a needed and a very popular notion, which is raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour.

MARTIN: That was Maria Cardona. She is a Democratic strategist who has advised the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigns. She is now a principal at the Dewey Square Group. David Sirota was also with us. He's a former campaign speechwriter for Senator Bernie Sanders. He's the founder and editor of a progressive newsletter called The Daily Poster, and he writes for other outlets as well.

Thank you both so much for talking to us.

SIROTA: Thank you.

CARDONA: Thank you, Michel.


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