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Sen. Bernie Sanders: COVID Relief Bill Is The Only Chance To Raise Minimum Wage This Session

Sen. Bernie Sanders holding a microphone
Cheryl Senter
Associated Press File
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at an event prior to the pandemic. He spoke with VPR about a proposed stimulus bill currently moving through Congress.

Another major COVID-19 relief bill is working its way through Congress. The $1.9 trillion package is expected to be voted on by the House next week, and it'll then go to the Senate.Democrats are pushing the bill through what's known as budget reconciliation to avoid a filibuster by Republicans. So that means senators like Vermont's Bernie Sanders, who now chairs the Senate Budget Committee, will have a major say in how the measure is structured.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders about the proposed package. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So Americans are still suffering from the economic fallout of the pandemic. Can you give us a date by which you expect residents will start seeing another round of stimulus checks in their bank accounts?

Sen. Bernie Sanders: Well, if I have anything to say about it, that will be as soon as possible, because there are tens of millions of families in this country who are really struggling. They're worried about addiction. They're worried about feeding their kids. They're worried about being able to afford to go to a doctor. So they need help and we've got to get those payments out to them as quickly as possible.

Well, there's also some deadlines coming up in terms of expanded unemployment benefits. I mean, do you expect that this bill can get out the door by mid-March?

I do. That’s our goal. We will extend unemployment benefits through September with a $400 supplement on top of normal unemployment. And that is terribly, terribly important, given the high level of unemployment that exists right now.

We also in that bill are going to expand the child tax credit to deal with a very longstanding problem of childhood poverty in America. We think we can reduce that by 50%. And we are going to expand health care as well.

So in the midst of crisis, this bill goes a long way towards addressing the issues that working families are struggling with right now.

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There is news out today that Republican House members are already whipping their caucus to oppose the measure in the House. I mean, how certain are you that this can get through with the incredibly narrow margins that Democrats have in both houses of Congress?

You're quite right. We have 50 votes and we need the vice president to vote with us. But I think we can do that.

I think Democrats understand that we are facing a series of crises unprecedented in the modern history of this country. It's not just the pandemic; it's the economic collapse. It's the fact that our kids are not going to school. It's the fact that we have an infrastructure which is crumbling, to deal with climate change. So we got real issues out there that have got to be dealt with and we intend to do that.

Obviously, we'd love to have Republican support, but if we don't have Republican support, we are going to go forward as aggressively and quickly as we can.

Let me remind you that when Republicans held power, they used the reconciliation process to give massive tax breaks to the rich and large corporations. That's what they did to try to throw over 30 million people off of health care by repealing the Affordable Care Act. We're going to use the reconciliation process to help a struggling working class and middle class and improve their lives.

Well, I want to ask about one particular issue in this package, which is the minimum wage. Politico reported that President Biden told governors and some mayors this week that a minimum wage boost is likely not going to be part of this bill. Are you willing to drop a minimum wage hike in order to get the relief through Congress?

Of course not; that’s not what the president said. What he said is he thought the parliamentarian would rule against putting the minimum wage in reconciliation.

Right, but the point is that it may not make it into this package.

It may not. But we are working very hard to see that it is.

We have a number of lawyers who have made an excellent case to the parliamentarian, you know, who kind of acts here as a Supreme Court justice by himself. And we have made the case that we think that increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, which in my view has to be done, is consistent with Senate rules and the reconciliation process.

Look, we have tens of millions of workers in this country who are working for starvation wages. Congress hasn't raised the minimum wage since 2007. It is now at $7.25 an hour. That is unacceptable. Fifteen-dollars-an hour over a four-year period. Four-year period is something that we can and must do, so that every worker in this country earns at least a minimally living wage.

This is a complicated process, though, reconciliation. So if it is not able to get through in this package, I mean, do you see a future for a minimum wage hike in the immediate term going through Congress?

Let’s be clear. Let's be honest about this. To the best of my knowledge, there is not one Republican who has come forward and said that he or she will support a $15-an-hour minimum wage. That means if you do the bill through so-called regular order, you're going to need 60 votes. We don't have 60 votes.

So if we do not do it through reconciliation, where we can do it with 51 votes, including the vice president, there is no way we're going to raise the minimum wage. That's it. Pure and simple.

So this is the one chance you have to raise the minimum wage in this session?

That's correct.

OK, Sen. Sanders, you supported President Biden after dropping out of the Democratic primary last year, and you worked to convince your supporters, many of whom may have been reluctant to support Biden, to vote for him. We're only a month into the new administration, but are you satisfied with the direction that the Biden administration is taking so far?

Well, I think what the president has indicated, and it's the point that I have made – and many of us have made over and over again – [is] that we are living in an unprecedented moment. I mean, we're looking at a pandemic which has taken almost half-a-million lives. We're looking at an economy where millions and millions of people have lost their jobs. We're looking at a time when kids are not going to school. We're looking at a rise in mental illness because people are isolated. We have a series of unprecedented crises facing this country.

And what I am very happy about is that the president understands that and he understands that we have to move in an unprecedented way. And that's why he proposed this $1.9 trillion reconciliation package, which deals with many of the immediate crises that we face, is safe.

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And let's be clear: in the very near future, we're going to come back with another reconciliation bill, which deals with some of our systemic long-term problems, like a crumbling infrastructure, like climate change, like education, and making sure that all of our young people have the ability to get to college regardless of their income, and dealing with student debt and dealing with immigration and if we can, with criminal justice reform as well.

So the president understands that now is the time to think big, not small. And I'm very appreciative that that is his position.

Well, finally, Sen. Sanders, in the last congressional session, you missed more votes than any other senator. According to GovTrack, you were not present for 57% of all votes over those two years. Now that you are…

I was running for president of the United States. It’s a little bit hard to be in Washington and, you know, be in Iowa and New Hampshire and other states.

Sure. But since you are not running for president now, do you anticipate being present for more votes and being in Washington more often going forward?

I'm the chairman of the Budget Committee, chairman of the Subcommittee on Health Care. Yes. I think I'm going to be in Washington virtually all of the time, doing the work of the American people. But, when you're running for president, it is true that you do miss votes.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp@TheHenryEpp.

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Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
Abagael is Vermont Public's climate and environment reporter, focusing on the energy transition and how the climate crisis is impacting Vermonters — and Vermont’s landscape.

Abagael joined Vermont Public in 2020. Previously, she was the assistant editor at Vermont Sports and Vermont Ski + Ride magazines. She covered dairy and agriculture for The Addison Independent and got her start covering land use, water and the Los Angeles Aqueduct for The Sheet: News, Views & Culture of the Eastern Sierra in Mammoth Lakes, Ca.
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