We can join forces, stop the shouting, and lower the temperature. For without unity, there is no peace, only bitterness, and fury; no progress, only exhausting outrage; no nation, only a state of chaos,” President Joe Biden said during his inauguration speech on January 20th. “This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge, and unity is the path forward. And we must meet this moment as the United States of America.”
After a rough four years that left this country more divided than ever, the President chose “America United” to be the theme of his inauguration, made clear by his inaugural address. Biden, who is committed to bipartisanship, emphasized that unity was the key to preserving our Democracy.
Unity is important.
However, there’s no denying how difficult achieving unity between both the Democratic and Republican parties will be when they’re both incredibly polarized. And unity between both parties seems like a long shot when the Democratic party itself isn’t united. If Joe Biden really wants to focus on unity while still being able to create change, he must first bring the Democratic party together.
It won’t be easy to unite the Democratic party. Both the moderate and progressive ends can hardly agree on agenda items and methods to achieve their goals. They were originally held together by their shared goal of defeating Trump, and they succeeded in doing so, but now Democrats have fallen back into the usual bickering and nobody can really agree on which direction to head in when it comes to policies. The lack of unity between the members of the Democratic party has become very clear. Even on issues that were thought to have a unanimous opinion, there seems to be a divide.
The most recent example of this is the $1.9 trillion COVID stimulus bill that was approved by the House on March 10th and signed into law by President Biden on March 11th. The Senate made some changes, but most of what Democrats in the House wanted in the bill remained the same. It included the $1,400 direct payment to those who earn less than $75,000 and their dependents, $350 billion in relief to state, local, and tribal governments, $20 billion into COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing and distribution, $50 billion into testing and contract tracing, and much more.
But one key thing was missing: the $15 minimum wage promised by Biden and the Democrats.
Heading into the 2016 election, the Democratic party had added raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour as a part of their party platform. During the 2020 Democratic primaries, all Democratic candidates except two had supported raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour nationwide. An overwhelming majority of Democrats supported this increase since raising the minimum wage would help reverse the growing pay inequality, stimulate the economy, and help minorities greatly. As the pandemic has worsened people’s financial situations, many Democrats have begun to push for it harder.
As a result, the Democrats in the House decided to include it as a part of the relief package, proposing the Raise the Wage Act. Following that decision, Senate parliamentarian Elizabeth MacDonough ruled that the minimum wage increase did not qualify for passage via budget reconciliation. The parliamentarian is the official advisor to the Senate on the interpretation of the rules and procedures that govern the Senate. MacDonough stated that the wage raise did not fit the rules that govern budget bills in the Senate.
If the minimum wage raise was proposed through a regular bill, it would result in a Senate filibuster since the Republican party opposes the raise. To avoid a Republican filibuster in the Senate, passing the $15 wage increase through the relief package was the best plan. It would have been moved through Congress through reconciliation, a special procedure that allows it to be approved with a simple majority. Otherwise, it would need 60 votes to overcome the Senate filibuster. Through reconciliation, the Democrats wouldn’t have needed any Republican Senate votes.
Vice-President Kamala Harris could’ve used her vice-presidential powers to overrule the Senate parliamentarian. Because the Senate is divided, the House Democrats were depending on this, and the unanimous vote from the Senate Democrats to get this important proposal passed through the relief bill. However, not only did Harris not overrule MacDonough’s decision, but eight moderate Senate Democrats voted against the proposal, citing a fear of further division between parties as their reason to do so.
While I’m disappointed by Harris not using her Vice Presidential power to overrule this decision, I’m even more disappointed with the eight Senate Democrats. Even if this proposal was in a regular bill, these Democrats’ opposition to eliminating the legislative filibuster would’ve killed it, the only other option to get the raise passed without Republican support.
One would think that a position that has been held by the party as a whole for almost five years would have no trouble getting passed when there finally seems to be an opening for change. Because the Democrats weren’t completely unified, a huge opportunity to help many Americans was missed.
What’s even more frustrating is that the minimum wage raise was a part of Biden’s platform when he was running for President. In fact, he proposed the increase as a part of his $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package. In an interview with CBS in February, Biden himself stated, “If you’re making less than $15 an hour, you’re living below the poverty wage.”
Biden could’ve pushed skeptical party members to get on board and ensured that the party had a united opinion. If he did this, Harris would’ve overruled the parliamentarian and would’ve been the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, allowing it to be included in the reconciliation package.
According to White House press secretary Jen Psaki, Biden was disappointed in the Senate parliamentarian ruling but respects the decision. In fear of jeopardizing the path to unity between both parties, he was willing to give up on an issue that a majority of his own party believed in. Now, as a result, not only are we not progressing and moving forward with major legislation that could help millions of Americans, but divisions within the Democratic party are continuing to grow.
After the Senate parliamentarian ruled against the $15 minimum wage being included in the COVID-19 relief bill, Senator Elizabeth Warren called for the filibuster to be abolished. On Twitter, she stated, “Democrats should not be held hostage by Mitch McConnell to help struggling families. It is time to get rid of the filibuster to raise the minimum wage to $15 and pass the other bold policies that Americans voted for us to deliver.”
Rep. Ilhan Omar agreed that the filibuster should be abolished but also called for the removal of the sitting parliamentarian. On Twitter, Omar stated, “A single unelected official shouldn’t be able to block a pay raise for 28 million Americans.”
Aside from the fact that these tweets are clearly indicative of how difficult it will be to create unity between both parties, it shows how their points of view are completely different from some of their fellow Democrats like Senator Joe Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema. Warren and Omar are two voices of the many progressive Democrats who are frustrated with the moderate side of the party that is in favor of keeping the filibuster, making it harder to raise the minimum wage.
Moderate Democrats like Joe Manchin are open to making some changes but would ultimately keep the filibuster. Manchin proposed a “talking filibuster” that would require senators to remain on the floor when objecting to a bill, making it more difficult for the other party to demand a 60-vote threshold to pass certain legislation. “I want to make it very clear to everybody: There’s no way that I would vote to prevent the minority from having input into the process in the Senate. That means protecting the filibuster. It must be a process to get to that 60-vote threshold,” he said in an interview on March 9th.
Since the Democrats are divided on the issue of abolishing the Senate filibuster, it’s been a major roadblock to getting the $15 minimum wage passed. If they’re this divided on an issue that affects the outcome of a major part of their party’s platform, I can only imagine how their differing opinions are affecting other areas of legislation.
Like most people, I want us to work towards unity, but I also want to see change. I know the two can co-exist if we work for it, however difficult that may be. But before we can even begin to work on bringing unity between both parties, we need to work on bringing unity within the Democratic party itself. Biden said he was committed to bipartisanship, but I hope he first works on bridging the gap between moderates and progressives. Both moderates and progressives want to help the people of America and want to move in the same direction, but at different paces and with different methods. By coming together and acknowledging everyone’s opinions, they can begin to work towards a compromise.
And then finally, we can embark on the path to unity as a country overall.
Deshna Chitrarasu is a columnist for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl