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Senate Democrats embrace a $15 minimum wage — which they once called hopelessly radical

Senators Sanders, Schumer, And Murray Rally With Fair Living Wage Activists On Raising Minimum Wage Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Democrats in Congress used to dismiss efforts to jack up the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. But on Wednesday, 22 Senate Democrats — including several party leaders — signed on to legislation that would raise the minimum wage to a $15 an hour by 2024.

That signals a new priority for the party. Just two years ago, in 2015, Bernie Sanders (I-VT) could only find five Senate Democrats to co-sponsor his bill. Now, a version introduced by Senate Assistant Democratic Leader Patty Murray (D-WA) and Sanders has support from almost half of the caucus.

“You can bet Democrats in Congress are going to fight to make $15 minimum wage a reality in this nation, from one end of the country to the other,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said in a speech on the steps of the Capitol Wednesday morning. “$15 isn’t going to make anybody rich. But it’s at least going to let people live a life of dignity. Every American who works hard is entitled to just that.”

Of course, almost any proposal to increase the minimum wage — much less one to $15 an hour — is dead on arrival with Republicans in Congress and President Donald Trump in the White House. But Sanders and his team are applauding the Democratic Party’s leadership and for coalescing around the $15 an hour minimum wage — a position almost universally viewed as radically left-wing just a few months ago.

“When this thought first came up, people were telling us, ‘That’s just crazy! You’re nuts! It’s pie in the sky! It’s not going to happen!’” said Warren Gunnels, the longtime policy director for Bernie Sanders. “It’s been a tremendous change.”

Democrats sharp leftward move on the minimum wage

Senators Sanders, Schumer, And Murray Rally With Fair Living Wage Activists On Raising Minimum Wage Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Since Trump’s inauguration, Democrats in Congress have moved sharply left on a whole host of key policy issues.

In prior Congresses, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) could only find about 60 co-sponsors to back his single-payer, Medicare-for-All House health care proposal. That number is now already over 100 members just a few months into the new session. Similarly, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) has found 12 other House Democrats to co-sponsor her bill to eliminate tuition at public universities for those whose families make under $125,000 — one that only a handful of the most left-wing Democrats previously supported.

"There's more of an appetite for an alternative now," Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), a sponsor of Conyers's bill, said in an interview in March. "Democrats have a new confidence to push for a single-payer system. The momentum is building."

But the leftward move of the caucus may be most dramatic over the minimum wage.

Less than a year ago, Hillary Clinton and Sanders were sparring on the campaign trail about whether $15 an hour was impractically high; Clinton’s official position embraced a $12 federal minimum wage. The overwhelming majority of House and Senate Democrats endorsed Clinton.

"Let’s not just do it for the sake of having a higher number out there," Clinton said, according to the New York Times. "But let’s get behind a proposal that actually has a chance of succeeding."

But on Wednesday, it was clear that the $15 an hour figure — despite no chance of being enacted — had moved swiftly into the Democratic Party’s mainstream.

“You can see it: It’s a new day here,” Gunnels said shortly after attending the rally at the Capitol on Wednesday, citing the work of labor advocates and union groups as crucial for moving the bulk of the Democratic Party’s positions.

Added Terrence Wise, a McDonald’s worker and member of the Fight for $15 movement, in a statement: “Think back to five years ago: President Obama had yet to call for even a $9 an hour federal minimum wage, and the two members of Congress brave enough to call for $10.10 an hour were considered crazy. … We’ve gone from laughable to inevitable.”