This is my update for Saturday, February 6th. The federal $15 minimum wage has been thrown around as a possibility for the upcoming stimulus package, Bernie Sanders and some other progressives have been pushing this for a while, but there have been questions about whether this is the right time or whether it should be included in the COVID relief bill. I originally highlighted the potential for resistance from Joe Manchin and other Democratic Senators who may not support that increase, and then Republican Senator Jodi Ernst pushed back against it during the vote-a-rama when she proposed an amendment against raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour during the pandemic.
Now that didn’t necessarily achieve what she wanted, Bernie’s plan was to gradually bring the minimum wage to $15 over a period of five years, so that amendment doesn’t necessarily make it impossible for the Senate to pass something like that without contradicting the amendment proposed by Senator Ernst, which passed by a voice vote.
But late last night, after I had already posted my Friday update, CBS News released an interview with President Joe Biden where he said that he wasn’t sure whether that provision would be in the final stimulus package “because of the rules of the United States Senate.”
To be clear, he still wants to negotiate for a federal minimum wage of $15 per hour, but he doesn’t think they’ll be able to pass that legislation right now given the limitations of the budget reconciliation process. I mentioned this in another update, the advantage of reconciliation from the Democrats’ perspective is that they only need 50 votes plus the tie breaking vote from Kamala Harris, but the drawback is that there are pretty strict rules about which kinds of legislation can be passed through reconciliation and which ones need to be passed through the normal channels, which are vulnerable to a filibuster in the Senate unless you can get 60 votes.
And reconciliation bills also need to be directly related to the budget, which is going to be tough to prove in the case of the minimum wage. Yes, changing the minimum wage will affect the budget, but that aspect probably isn’t central enough to allow them to do this through reconciliation. And especially with Biden coming out and expressing doubt about this plan, it’s looking less and less likely that this is going to be part of the upcoming relief bill.
Biden’s team also announced several new plans to streamline the vaccine rollout and increase production of gloves, rapid tests, and other necessary equipment. Lloyd Austin, the Secretary of Defense, deployed a little over 1,000 troops for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help at some of the largest vaccination sites in the country, including one in Los Angeles and another in Oakland.
They’re expected to begin that operation next Monday, so just over a week from now. Along with providing troops, the Biden administration also invoked the Defense Production Act to accelerate production, and they hope to make 1 billion nitrile gloves per month plus 61 million or more total point-of-care or at-home COVID-19 tests by this summer. These efforts are particularly urgent given the new variants that have been popping up recently, including one from South Africa that was recently identified for the first time in the United States.
While Biden’s team has expressed optimism about the long-term prospects, they aren’t satisfied with current production and distribution levels for the existing vaccines, including the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine that they were hoping would increase supply.
Andy Slavitt, a senior advisor on the COVID-19 response team, said “as is the case with other vaccines, we have not found that the level of manufacturing allows us to have as much vaccine as we think we need coming out of the gate….Every option is on the table to figure out how to accelerate manufacturing in the event that the FDA does approve the Johnson and Johnson vaccine.”
Nearly 60 million vaccines have been distributed to states already, but just 35 million have been reported as administered. So we’re making progress, 35 million is at least over 10 percent of the American population, but it could be a while before we have mass vaccinations to the point that they start to reduce transmission.
Some people have also reported complications with getting the second dose after they’ve already received the first dose, particularly in states like Washington and Connecticut that don’t necessarily schedule both appointments at the same time. Now there is a little room for error here, you don’t need to get the second dose on a particular day, it’s not like you’ll have to restart the sequence if you miss your appointment.
The CDC recommends a maximum of six weeks between the first and second dose, although the ideal time frame is still 21 days for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 28 days for the Moderna vaccine. So hopefully by the summer we will at least be able to vaccinate the most vulnerable groups, but for now there are inefficiencies in everything from production to distribution and scheduling that are making it difficult to stay on schedule. That’s all I have for you today, the House will be moving at full speed on COVID relief starting on Monday.