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Romney May Be Biden's Best Hope For Progress On Immigration And The Minimum Wage

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) questions Xavier Becerra, nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on February 23, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) questions Xavier Becerra, nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on February 23, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

If a slob like Oscar Madison could befriend a neatnik like Felix Unger, might Joe Biden and Mitt Romney make an "Odd Couple" to help engineer a fairer society?

Which one’s the slob depends on your politics, but the demise of Biden’s proposal to increase the minimum wage -- and his pending efforts to overhaul our immigration system — force a reality check: His ambitions may rely on the kindness of Republican strangers, like the senator from Utah.

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The Senate parliamentarian stripped a doubling of the minimum wage, to $15 an hour, from Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 bill on grounds it was non-germane. Under budget reconciliation rules, the COVID plan can be passed with a simple majority, which Senate Democrats have. But the parliamentarian’s ruling may punt minimum wage legislation outside those rules, in which case Democrats will need help enacting it. So late winter’s most consequential coincidence may be Romney and Republican Sen. Tom Cotton’s proposal to buck GOP orthodoxy with a $10 minimum wage, indexed to future inflation.

They’d marry that wage increase to a requirement that employers electronically verify their workers’ legal status in the country. Romney and Cotton say e-verify is more about economics than immigration: they argue their proposal aims to weed out wage-depressing competition with Americans for jobs (a negligible problem, by expert consensus). Yet if Biden can come to a compromise with the Republican duo, it may be good news for workers’ and immigrants’ rights alike.

Romney-Cotton’s higher minimum wage has drawn predictable, and predictably backwards, uber-right sloganeering as a “big government stunt.” Actually, it’s not big enough: the federal minimum wage hasn’t been increased in 14 years. The current mandatory minimum, at just $7.25, has long been inadequate for alleviating poverty. Their proposed $10 minimum — rising over four years — is hardly a dramatic (or adequate) increase.

If Biden can come to a compromise with [Romney and Cotton], it may be good news for workers’ and immigrants’ rights alike.

The Congressional Budget Office says $15 would lift almost 1 million people out of poverty, at a cost of 1.4 million jobs (some companies, unable to meet the rise in wages, would lay off workers). In a rational world, we’d agree on alternative help for workers — say, resurrecting unions and collective bargaining, such that wage minimums-by-government fiat are unnecessary, as in Scandinavia. But the GOP jihad against organized labor precludes that. Given moderate Democratic senators’ agreement with the parliamentarian’s declaration, Democrats must swallow a smaller minimum wage raise if they can get it. Smaller beats nothing, and that Senate Democrats’ majority remains available to muscle through other anti-poverty measures.

On immigration, decency argues for citizenship for 11 million undocumented people. But the tortured history of our immigration debate corroborates the late Sen. John McCain’s epiphany: Americans want border control first, then bringing undocumented immigrants out from life in the shadows.

President Biden is backing an immigration plan that would make undocumented people wait eight years, pay back taxes and clear background checks before citizenship. (A three-year wait would be granted farmworkers, “Dreamers” brought here as children and those facing dangerous conditions back home.) At this point, he has made only one nod to border security: technology surveillance upgrades at ports of entry.

Smaller beats nothing, and that Senate Democrats’ majority remains available to muscle through other anti-poverty measures.

Rom-Cott must have teeth to punish law-breaking companies -- past e-verify plans haven’t -- but if a compromise can be reached, it would signal that Biden grasps the need for enforcing immigration law, improving the chances for overall reform. If e-verify buys moderate or conservative support for Biden's expansive package, progressives will have gained more than they lost, especially as Democratic senators have supported electronic verification as part of immigration reform.

Indeed, the first party platform on which Barack Obama ran declared:

... employers need a method to verify whether their employees are legally eligible to work in the United States, and we will ensure that our system is accurate, fair to legal workers, safeguards people's privacy, and cannot be used to discriminate against workers.

As the president ponders legislative partners, Cotton probably won’t leap to his mind. The Arkansan joined the GOP’s craven Senate majority to acquit Donald Trump of incitement, after penning an op-ed incitement himself against antiracist protests. Romney is another matter.

He was one of seven Republican senators voting to convict Trump last month and the lone GOP guilty vote in Trump's first impeachment trial. Unlike most of his caucus, he displays evidence of a  sentient conscience, including proposing child-based cash payments to millions of families. As Massachusetts governor in the aughts, he enacted all-but-universal health insurance that became the blueprint for Obamacare.

Economist and pundit Paul Krugman is right that, “bipartisanship is not the goal. Getting stuff done is the goal.” Yet the particular stuff of immigration and minimum wage reform needs bipartisanship to get anything done. That seems most likely to come from the odd couple of a famously empathetic president and a senator who, unlike too many in his party, at least sips the milk of human kindness.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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