Sanders says $15 minimum wage not 'incidental' to federal budget as its place in Covid relief bill questioned

By Ryan Nobles and Veronica Stracqualursi, CNN

(CNN) -- Sen. Bernie Sanders argued Saturday that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour isn't "incidental" to the federal budget, despite skepticism from Capitol Hill and the White House of its future in the President's Covid-19 relief package.

"I'm very proud of the strong arguments our legal team is making to the parliamentarian that raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour is not 'incidental' to the federal budget and is permissible under the rules of reconciliation," the Vermont independent told CNN on Saturday.

Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour stands as the biggest obstacle to getting President Joe Biden's $1.9 trillion Covid relief bill across the finish line. Some congressional Democrats doubt the provision will be allowed under the guardrails of reconciliation, a budget process that requires each provision to adhere to a strict set of rules, while a handful of moderate members have made it clear privately and in public statements that they can't support legislation that includes it.

But Sanders, who chairs the Senate Budget Committee, has remained confident that the minimum wage increase will survive the review of the Senate parliamentarian and does not violate the Byrd Rule, which keeps "extraneous" measures out of the budget. Sanders and the Budget Committee's legal team have been meeting with the Senate parliamentarian's office this week, arguing that the minimum wage increase would directly affect the federal budget and therefore be allowed to pass the Senate with only 51 votes through the reconciliation.

Sanders pointed to the Congressional Budget Office's analysis that the $15 minimum wage has a greater impact on the federal budget than the two provisions in Republicans' 2017 tax bill that opened acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling and repealed the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate penalties. At the time, the Senate parliamentarian had advised that the GOP provisions did not run afoul of the Byrd Rule.

The minimum wage portion of the Covid-19 relief package has been a point of contention from the beginning. Sanders and progressive Democrats believe including it is necessary and would provide them an important legislative victory early on in the Biden administration. But Republicans are very much opposed to its inclusion and if it were included in the final package it would destroy any slim hope of bipartisan support for the plan.

And it's not just Republicans. Biden has said on multiple occasions that while he supports a $15 minimum wage, he's skeptical it can be passed through reconciliation, and two moderate Democrats, Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have made it clear they will not support the final deal if the minimum wage hike is part of it.

But Democrats are forging ahead. The House included the minimum wage increase in their recently revealed Covid relief package, and Sanders made clear Saturday morning he has no plans to back down.

"I'm confident that the parliamentarian will advise next week that we can raise the minimum wage through the reconciliation process," he told CNN.

Sanders' legislation calls for hiking the hourly wage in stages until it hits $15 in 2025.

Raising the minimum wage to $15 would reduce the number of people in poverty by 900,000 and increase the pay of about 27 million workers, according to a CBO report released earlier this month. But it would also cut employment by 1.4 million workers and increase the federal budget deficit by $54 billion over a decade.

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