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The Senate has voted to open debate on President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. The legislation has widespread support from voters, with one new poll showing 77% of Americans support the bill, including nearly 60% of Republicans. But the Senate bill has some key differences from the package approved by the House, including a reduction in the number of people eligible for direct stimulus checks and no provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. However, the Fight for 15 continues, with the Senate considering an amendment by Senator Bernie Sanders to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour over a five-year period. Reverend Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and president of Repairers of the Breach, notes that 140 million people in the U.S. were already living in poverty before this pandemic, and he urges Democrats to “stick together” and push through the minimum wage hike.
AMY GOODMAN: The Senate voted Thursday to open debate on President Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package. The final vote was 51 to 50, with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking the tie after every Republican senator voted against advancing the legislation. Democrats are hoping to pass the bill before March 14th, when extended unemployment benefits run out. The legislation has widespread support from voters. One new poll shows 77% of Americans support the bill, including nearly 60% of Republicans. But Senate Republicans are attempting to slow the process to a crawl. On Thursday, Wisconsin Republican Senator Ron Johnson forced Senate clerks to read the entire text of the stimulus bill aloud — more than 100,000 words filling 628 pages.
The House has already approved a $1.9 trillion relief package, but the Senate bill has some key differences. It reduces the number of people eligible for direct stimulus checks and does not include a provision to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour over a number of years. The unelected Senate parliamentarian recently ruled the wage increase could not be included in a bill passed through what’s known as the budget reconciliation process.
However, the Fight for 15 is not over. The Senate will consider today an amendment by Senator Bernie Sanders to raise the hourly federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15 over the next five years. Sanders spoke on the Senate floor Thursday.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: This is legislation that will increase wages for 30 million American workers. And if you ask me what the great economic crisis in our country is today, it’s not just high unemployment. It’s not just income and wealth inequality. It is that half of our people today and before the pandemic were living paycheck to paycheck. Their wages were so low that if they had a problem with their car or their kid got sick, suddenly they were in financial crisis. And in the richest country in the history of the world, half of our people should not be facing economic desperation when their car breaks down. And the reason for that is, significantly, that many millions of workers are earning starvation wages — and I underline that: starvation wages — in this country. I’d love to hear anybody get up here and tell me that they could live on seven-and-a-quarter an hour, they can live on eight bucks an hour, they can live on nine bucks an hour. You can’t.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Senator Bernie Sanders.
To talk about the push to raise the federal minimum wage, we’re joined now by the Reverend Dr. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairers of the Breach. He and Reverend Liz Theoharis just wrote a letter to Vice President Kamala Harris, published in The Nation, titled “VP Harris, Maybe You Were Elected for Such a Time as This.”
Reverend Barber, welcome back to Democracy Now! Explain what you are demanding.
REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, first of all, thank you so much, Amy, for having me on this morning.
And we wrote that letter to Senator [sic] Harris and to Chuck Schumer and to Democrats and to President Biden. I can’t help but think right now about a passage of Scripture, Isaiah 10: “Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights.”
When I went to West Virginia a few weeks ago and met with poor, low-wealth people, from the hollows of West Virginia to the streets of Charleston, they were clear — white and Black and Brown: When passing tax cuts, they said, for the wealthy, parliamentarians have never had the last word, and they shouldn’t have it now. Parliamentarian didn’t rule; the parliamentarian merely advises.
And they were demanding of Manchin, whose actions have just been shameful — Republicans’ actions have been sinister; his have been shameful. They were demanding that Democrats have to keep pushing. And as Bernie Sanders said, Senator Sanders, not one of these senators could live off of what people are living off of now. Every one of them makes hundreds of thousands of dollars.
And, Amy, I also — we’re pushing. I really want to hear Bernie Sanders also say “poverty wages.” We’ve got to say “poverty.” A hundred and forty million people were living in poverty even before — poverty or low wages, even before this pandemic. We said that Senator Schumer should have kept it in the bill — it shouldn’t have to be amended — should have been kept it in the bill and forced Vice President Harris to overrule the advice of the parliamentarian.
And the history is important here. The parliamentarian issue, parliamentarians advised and ruled out of order every attempt to end slavery. They ruled out of order attempts to change the Constitution, to change injustice after the Civil War. Nobody should want to be connected to that legacy. And if Senator Harris was to say no to the adviser, which has been done before — Trent Lott fired a parliamentarian, Hubert Humphrey did fire them, Rockefeller. There’s a history of this.
And then it would force it back to the floor, which would mean that senators would have to have 60 votes to override the presiding officer. Where we are now, if Bernie puts an amendment on the floor, if the Democrats were to stick together, first of all, the amendment could pass. Then it would put it back where the parliamentarian would advise against it. Then the vice president could say no to the advice. And it then would require 60 votes. And they don’t have 60 votes. Even Manchin and Sinema, those Democrats, they don’t have the intestinal fortitude to vote against the bill, which is why they want a pass. They don’t want to have to vote and let everybody see them vote against $15.
They know, lastly, that there are 62 million workers before this pandemic who were making less than $15 an hour. They know that the poor and low-wealth people were the first to be forced to go to work, the first to get infected, the first to get sick and the first to die. And they know that 55% of poor and low-wealth people voted for the Biden-Harris ticket.
They also know, lastly, that this issue of $15 an hour, the March on Washington, Amy, agenda was $2 an hour and the Civil Rights Act. Two dollars an hour in ’63 would be $15 an hour today. Seventy percent of the public wants this. And I think Democrats are really playing with fire here if they don’t get Manchin and Sinema in check or if Schumer pulls this out, and they don’t — and the vice president doesn’t overrule, because you’re talking about 62 million people. You’re talking about 65 million poor and low-wealth voters, and you’re talking about in the midst of a pandemic.
And it’s shameful, lastly, that in the midst of this pandemic, there are three things we have not done. Number one, we have not guaranteed unemployment and sick leave. Number two, we’ve not expanded healthcare. And number three, we’ve not decided to pay essential workers a living wage, essential, what they need, in the time in which 8 million more people have gone into poverty. Only 39% of this country can afford a $1,000 emergency. Seven-twenty-five is barely $15,000 a year. And tip workers make $2.13 an hour, 16 million tip workers, and 60% of them couldn’t even qualify for the unemployment offered during this pandemic. This is “Woe unto those who legislate evil and rob the poor of their rights.” And this robbery needs to stop, and we need to do what is right.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what’s fascinating here is you have a group of people, a hundred people — and then, of course, there’s Kamala Harris — and the majority of them are millionaires saying $15 an hour is too much. You make a critical point about Manchin and Sinema. They have said they would not vote for that $15-an-hour increase — which is not right away. It would be over a number of years. Manchin said maybe he would tolerate $11. But that you’re saying if push came to shove, given its vast popularity among the American public, including Republicans, they would not go against this bill.
REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Don’t have the guts to do it. I don’t believe it. In West Virginia, 50% of the people work for less than a living wage. That’s 362,000 people. I’ve been to West Virginia. I’ve seen the fervor in the people. I’ve never seen the unity between Black people from the streets of Charleston and white people from the hollows of the mountain. When we we met with Manchin, we had persons from his own county, his hollow. One lady said, “I knew your mama. I knew Robert Byrd. This is not what Robert Byrd was about.” They have been strong. There are 900,000 poor and low-wealth people in West Virginia. In Arizona, there’s about almost a million people who make less than a living wage. They don’t want to have to vote. They want a pass. They want to be able to say, “Well, the parliamentarian didn’t allow it.” But the parliamentarian advises. The parliamentarian doesn’t rule.
And the reason I’m saying this to — we’ve said to Vice President Harris is it’s really a love statement. You have a chance here to make this our economic Selma. You have a chance to stand where Rosa Parks stood, where Fannie Lou Hamer stood, where Amelia Boynton stood, who was beat on the bridge in Selma but also was at the — with Poor People’s Campaign in ’68, she was in Resurrection City. You have a chance to say, “Not only am I the first Black woman in the position, but I’m going to take a position, and I’m not going to allow a parliamentarian — one person — to block 62 million people who are poor and low-wealth. I’m not going to allow one person to hurt 25 million people who are facing hunger right now, 30 to 40 million people that are facing eviction. I’m not going to let one person block billions of dollars being pumped into the economy” — because, you know, if they did it immediately, it would actually pump $330 billion-plus into the economy. She could say, “I’m not going to allow the 74 million women who are poor and low-wealth in this country to continue to be hurt. No, I’m going to force you to have to vote on this. I may not be able to vote on it, but as the vice president, I’m not going to allow a parliamentarian to be more powerful than me. I’m going to overrule them.”
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the legacy of the parliamentarian? You’ve talked about it going back to slavery.
REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Yeah. I mean, and that’s the other reason nobody should want to be lined up with this issue, because, Amy, none of this stuff is constitutional. Nobody swore to uphold a parliamentarian. They swore to uphold the Constitution, which declares the first thing you must do, if you’re going to heal — have domestic tranquility, is you must establish justice. And there is no justice when we still have people making $7.25 an hour. There is no justice when in America today we’ve declared, by our outdated poverty measurement, that if a person makes $12,761 a year, they are not poor. That is absurd.
There is no justification in allowing a parliamentarian — and as I’ve said, if you go back in history, every time the issue of slavery came up, parliamentarians advised against it, said it was not — it could not be brought to the floor, prior to slavery, and there were attempts to do it after the Civil War. And then the whole parliamentarian filibuster issue was used constantly by white supremacists in the Congress during the civil rights movement and prior to the civil rights movement. This is an ugly history.
And there is history, though, of it being defied. As I said, Hubert Humphrey did. Nelson Rockefeller did it. Trent Lott fired the parliamentarian. There’s no way — and that’s why we were so troubled. President Biden should loose the vice president. There’s no way in the world he — and I preached the inaugural ceremony. I have great respect. We are thankful for much else that’s in the bill. But there’s no way he should have said two weeks ago, “I’m going to abide by the parliamentarian.” The parliamentarian didn’t elect him. The parliamentarian isn’t a constitutional office. The parliamentarian, and use of it by oppressive forces in this country, has a deep and ugly history. No, overrule that parliamentarian and make those senators vote. Make them vote in front of the people.
AMY GOODMAN: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, “Conservative Dems have fought so the Biden admin sends fewer & less generous relief checks than the Trump admin did. It’s a move that makes little-to-no political or economic sense, and targets an element of relief that is most tangibly felt by everyday people. An own-goal.” And, I mean, the stats are staggering. You write raising the minimum wage would, quote, “lift 40 percent of African-American workers and 62 million poor and low-income Americans of every race.”
REV. WILLIAM BARBER II: Well, first of all, again, I’m going to challenge even all the Democrats. We need to stop using this language about conservative. Look, they’re not conservative. There’s nothing conservative when you deestablish justice. To conserve means to hold on to something. So they’re not conservative. They’re not liberal. They’re not moderates. They’re not centrists. What is a centrist? You only make sure half the people get justice?
What we are seeing is a robbing of the rights of the poor. What we are seeing is a clear violation, I believe, of the fundamental principles of the Constitution. And that’s what we need to call it. It’s extreme. It’s catering to the corporate bloc in this country. It’s a refusal to treat people right. It is literally stomping on the hopes and dreams of the very people, poor and low-wealth people, who were the main ones to have kept this economy alive in the midst of a pandemic.
And lastly, there was no parliamentary issue brought up when we gave $6 trillion to the corporations, no issue brought up when 84% of the first COVID bill went to banks or corporations, no issue brought up when we gave $1.2 trillion to corporations that didn’t even go through the Congress. Mnuchin just did it.
And how tragic it would be to pass a bill that is less than what Republicans did, less than what McConnell did. And if Democrats are not careful, Republicans are going to outflank them. Trump and others are so cynical. They would come back — I bet you — if we don’t do this, and then propose a higher minimum wage and end up outflanking Democrats, because, you know, there’s a kind of populism that has a history in this country that is economic populism but is also socially regressive.
This makes no sense at all. Make these senators vote. So, when Bernie Sanders puts this motion on the table, Democrats should stick together, goes back to the vice president. She should overrule the advice — that’s all it is — of the parliamentarian and force it to a 60-vote margin. They have to have 60 votes to overrule the vice president. And let America see. If they’ve got the intestinal fortitude to vote against their own people, let us see that. And then we’ll be clear about what we need to do in the next election. But I don’t believe they have it. They just want a pass. They want to not have to vote, and they’re afraid to have to vote. And if we make them do it in the public, I don’t think they’ll vote against the people.
AMY GOODMAN: Reverend Dr. William Barber, I want to thank you for taking this time — you’re on the road in North Carolina — to be with us, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, president of Repairers of the Breach. We’ll link to the letter you and Reverend Liz Theoharis wrote to Vice President Kamala Harris, published in The Nation, again, titled “VP Harris, Maybe You Were Elected for Such a Time as This.”