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White House Aims To Include Higher Minimum Wage To Relief Bill

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

How much more relief aid should Congress approve for Americans struggling because of the pandemic? The House is preparing to take up President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID relief package. The bill is expected to pass the House Budget Committee today and could be up for a full House vote by the end of the week. While Biden pledged to work across the aisle during his campaign, getting that bipartisan support for his COVID relief package will be a tough order. Even some moderate Democrats in Congress are concerned about the price tag.

Cedric Richmond is a senior adviser to the president and director of the Office of Public Engagement at the White House, and he joins us this morning. Thanks so much for being here.

CEDRIC RICHMOND: Well, thanks for having me. Good morning.

MARTIN: Let me start with this question. There is still over a trillion dollars in COVID relief money from the previous aid package that hasn't even been spent yet. So why do you need to pass an additional $1.9 trillion right now?

RICHMOND: That's just not true.

MARTIN: So when Republicans...

RICHMOND: There's not a trillion dollars out there. And we showed Republicans exactly why that was not the case, and they have not countered that argument. That was an argument they made two weeks ago.

MARTIN: So...

RICHMOND: And when we showed them exactly where everything was, they have not countered or disputed that.

MARTIN: So all of that money has been accounted for. We're talking about improvements for schools to reopen. All of that has been spent?

RICHMOND: Out of all of that, I think there's a number of $63 million. I think there's a number around $63- that is not. But the rest of that money has been obligated, and the rest of it will be.

MARTIN: So let's talk about the extent of the criticism, though, because as we've mentioned, you're getting pushback from centrist Democrats. Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona say they don't like this bill, in particular the effort to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. How are you making the case that that should be attached to this COVID relief bill?

RICHMOND: Because this is about lifting people up at the same time. We just do not believe that any American should go to work, a 40-hour workweek, and still live in poverty. That's not who we are. And so we believe that this package, which will help the entire economy and help people who have been struggling. And those people who are on the front lines, those people making minimum wage, are bearing the brunt of this pandemic. And we just think that it's the right thing to do policywise, and it's just the right thing to do.

MARTIN: The Congressional Budget Office, nonpartisan CBO, says doing this would cost 1.4 million jobs by the year 2025. How do you respond to that?

RICHMOND: Look - we saw the budget office estimates. We don't think that's true. We've looked at states who have raised the minimum wage in the past, and those states actually had job growth. And so we see the CBO score on it, but what the CBO score does is - the fact that it would touch a budget or something may improve Senator Sanders' argument. But raising the minimum wage is a moral fight that we have to have right now.

MARTIN: Republicans also vigorously dissent the minimum wage. President Biden himself has said he doesn't think it's going to survive the package. So, again, why attach it to the COVID relief bill if it's this contentious?

RICHMOND: Because it's important. We've always raised the minimum wage during, you know, troubling times. It's always been a little contentious. So this is no different. But President Biden has been very clear that the minimum wage needs to be raised, and he's been very clear that people should not live in poverty that work 40 hours a week.

MARTIN: What about the Black and brown small-business owners in America who are going to have to come up with the money to pay higher salaries to their employees? This hits them, too.

RICHMOND: One, it's phased in. But I don't think that the argument for Black and brown business owners - or white business owners, for that matter - is that they get to go home and sleep every night, knowing that their hardworking employees are living in poverty. This is a give-and-take. We know it is, and that's why it's phased in. But this is something that should be done.

MARTIN: I want to talk about what the administration is doing for small businesses. Just this morning, the administration announced changes to the Paycheck Protection Program. Can you talk about those?

RICHMOND: I don't think we've announced them yet. And we will be today, but I won't get in front of it. But I will tell you this - 63% of small-business owners in the country favor the American Rescue Plan.

MARTIN: It's our understanding that this is supposed to help minority-owned rural, so-called mom-and-pop businesses. These are for very small organizations, to help them on a temporary basis meet payroll during the pandemic. Can you tell us...

RICHMOND: That's exactly what it's designed to do. And we saw the disparity and inequity in the PPP program, how it was administered and how small businesses and minority businesses were not at the front of the line but the end of the line. And with the - all the obstacles, they just did not get a chance to access that funds - those funds like everyone else. And President Biden has said from Day 1 of his campaign that racial equity was important to him. And I think that these changes, when announced, will be very much so in line with his desires.

MARTIN: I want to pivot with the seconds remaining. Democrat Joe Biden - I'm sorry. Democrat Joe Manchin has said he's going to vote against President Biden's nominee for director of OMB, Neera Tanden. This morning, Republican Senator Susan Collins said she's also going to vote no. This seriously jeopardizes Neera Tanden's confirmation. Does the president still stand by his nominee?

RICHMOND: Yes, president does stand by Neera Tanden.

MARTIN: What are you going to do to get those votes?

RICHMOND: Well, you named 2 out of 98 - I mean, you named 2 out of 100, so there are 98 left, and we're going to continue to make the case for her. And she's going to continue her meetings and her outreach that she's been doing. She's immensely qualified for the position, and the president believes in her.

MARTIN: Cedric Richmond, director of the Office of Public Engagement at the White House. Thank you.

RICHMOND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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