Bernie Sanders Won’t Help Out Josh Hawley This Time
But Jon Ossoff just might be game for a team-up. He said he was “encouraged” by one of Hawley’s $15 minimum-wage proposals.
When Sen. Josh Hawley voiced his support late last year for giving millions of Americans $2,000 checks, he said he got a call from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ camp. What happened next was the formation of one of Capitol Hill’s stranger political odd couples, as the Trumpist Republican from Missouri and the Democratic Socialist from Vermont joined together to make a very public push for a shared priority.
That partnership might have continued last week, with another Hawley announcement that put him in league with Sanders and other progressives: his support for requiring companies with revenues of $1 billion or more to pay their workers a $15 hourly minimum wage.
But of course, something rather important happened since Hawley and Sanders first joined forces. The Missouri Republican was a lead endorser and amplifier of former President Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories that he unfairly lost the 2020 election—theories that fueled the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6. In a now-infamous photograph, Hawley was pictured raising his fist in solidarity with those gathered outside the Capitol that morning. When the Senate convened after the mob was cleared, Hawley was the only senator to speak in favor of objecting to the Electoral College certification.
So when Hawley floated his minimum wage plan on Friday, no apparent public or private efforts to collaborate with progressives followed. There was no sequel to the fight for $2,000 checks. Hawley told The Daily Beast on Tuesday that he had not gotten a call from Sanders or any Democratic colleague about the proposal or spoken with any of them about it. Sanders, meanwhile, declined to say if he had even talked to Hawley, only saying in response to questions that Democrats had moved on from an effort to force companies to pay a $15 wage in their COVID bill. A source close to Sanders confirmed that the two men did not speak about the proposed amendment to require companies to pay a $15 minimum wage.
Asked if Democrats wanted to work with him right now, Hawley said, “I don’t think they particularly want to work with anybody.”
But that doesn’t appear to be so.
Sen. Jon Ossoff—the Democrat from Georgia who won his race for Senate the same day Hawley encouraged the mob that attacked it—told The Daily Beast on Tuesday, “I’m not going to rule out working with any colleagues.” He said he’d be open to considering Hawley’s proposal, adding, “I’m encouraged that there is interest among Republican senators in taking action to increase wages.”
Ever since Jan. 6, Democrats have contemplated how they could work again as normal with the over 150 congressional Republicans who voted to object to the 2020 election results and who spread conspiracies that President Joe Biden somehow did not win fairly. Relationships on typically chummy Capitol Hill have been strained, with flare-ups and personal attacks boiling over in committee hearings. Some Democratic lawmakers now keep lists of who they can work with and who they cannot, based on the votes that took place after the attack on Jan. 6.
But Hawley’s case might be a unique test of the strained new atmosphere on Capitol Hill. To some Democrats, no other high-profile GOP lawmaker is more associated with the events of Jan. 6. Among many, particularly activists, Hawley is now firmly persona non grata—a contemptible figure who has fully earned himself a career as a pariah. “Josh Hawley has a lot to answer to,” said Joe Sanberg, a California businessman and advocate for raising the wage. “I don’t think he’s a relevant part of the conversation about the righteous fight for the minimum wage for 22 million people who earn less than $15 an hour.”
But few, if any, occupy the space on the political spectrum that the freshman Republican has staked out—space that has situated Hawley to find, on occasion, common ground with progressives.
In addition to the splashier $2,000 check campaign and the minimum wage proposal, Hawley has introduced legislation to require some colleges to pay off the debts of students who default on their loans and bills to rein in pharmaceutical prices. He has been an outspoken critic of Wall Street and corporate America, albeit from a conservative perspective, but in ways that found him occasionally hitting similar notes as some on the left.
For many progressives who might be inclined to agree with some of Hawley’s proposals, wariness and skepticism about the ambitious senator’s populist overtures have prevailed. Many have noted that his brand of populism is animated by a nationalist, anti-immigration sentiment they find xenophobic or even racist; others simply don’t take his stances all too seriously.
“I have always been immensely skeptical of it,” said Marshall Steinbaum, an economics professor at the University of Utah who focuses on inequality, labor, and antitrust issues. “It’s not a matter of making common cause with strange political bedfellows… I definitely take the view that having Hawley in some putative coalition discredits that coalition.”
But other Democrats have welcomed the emergence of Republicans who could, potentially, help them advance the pro-worker economic policies they’ve been campaigning on for years. Clearly, Sanders previously believed that working with Hawley could help deliver direct relief to people hit hard by the pandemic. "We are working on bipartisan legislation," Sanders said in a speech from the Senate floor in December. "And Senator Hawley has done a very, very good job on this."
Hawley, meanwhile, has been a vocal critic of the “radical left.” But when the partnership with Sanders emerged last year, he told reporters, “Hey, as I’ve said, I’ll work with anybody.”
The senators’ efforts on stimulus checks prompted commentators to raise their eyebrows—at a “budding left-right populist alliance,” as The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent put it. Ultimately, the bill that passed on Dec. 26 fell far short of what the duo asked for, with direct checks of only $600, and a standalone floor vote on $2,000 checks they pushed for later was blocked by Senate GOP leadership. But that full amount will almost certainly come eventually, with the Democratic-controlled Congress slated to send out $1,400 direct payments as part of a new relief plan this month.
The new round of relief was still an abstraction when Capitol Hill was ruptured on Jan. 6, the very day Democrats sealed the Senate majority. In the aftermath, seven Senate Democrats requested that the Senate Ethics Committee open an investigation to obtain a “complete account” of Hawley’s role, and that of Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX), in the events of the day. Arguing that they had “lent legitimacy to the mob’s cause and made future violence more likely,” the senators said the body to determine whether the Republicans violated the rules and therefore merited punishment—including expulsion. Sanders was not on the letter.
In response, Hawley accused the Democrats of trying to “cancel” him and filed his own complaint to the Ethics panel about their letter.
The Missouri senator proceeded to play virtually no role in the shaping of the COVID relief plan that developed after Biden took office. Most Senate Democrats have avoided declaring they will never work with him again, but no one is rushing to work with him.
Hawley has nevertheless tried to get a piece of the ongoing stimulus action, especially on the minimum wage, which has become a key focus of the current relief plan. In addition to proposing a requirement for “billion-dollar” companies to pay a $15 hourly wage, Hawley rolled out what he called the “Blue-Collar Bonus,” a tax credit intended to give employees of smaller companies a way to reach the $15 threshold, at government expense. Critics responded that the structure of his plan would give companies huge loopholes to avoid paying a fair wage.
It also explicitly excludes non-citizens and undocumented workers—a nonstarter for Democrats, and a sign to progressives like Sanberg that it’s impossible to take any good in Hawley’s proposals without also taking on the bad. “He has terrible judgment. He’s always trying to move to where he thinks political winds are—when you’re moving with political winds without any moral center, it takes you right into hurricanes,” he said.
But Pete d’Alessandro, a former top Sanders political adviser in Iowa, said sometimes there isn’t a choice. “Are you not gonna work with every single senator who thinks we still need to look into the election?” he told The Daily Beast. “Because there’s more than Hawley on that. If you buy into what Congress is supposed to do, if you draw these buckets, there’s not gonna be a lot of people to work with, at some point.”