WASHINGTON, D.C. — Freshman Congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small has broken ranks with her party on two big votes this week, voting against Democratic-led measures that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and impeach President Donald Trump.
Torres Small said a $15 federal minimum wage — a prominent plank in the platform of contemporary Democrats — isn’t right for all of New Mexico, particularly considering the Legislature and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham agreed this spring on legislation that will gradually raise the state’s minimum wage from $7.50 an hour to $12 in 2023.
The U.S. House of Representatives voted 231-199 Thursday to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour incrementally over six years.
Torres Small was one of six Democrats to vote against the Raise the Wage Act bill, with three Republicans breaking ranks and voting with Democrats. New Mexico’s other two members of the U.S. House of Representatives, Democrats Ben Ray Lujan and Deb Haaland, voted for the bill without reservation.
“I was elected to represent New Mexico and my home, southern New Mexico, and make sure that what I’m doing is in the best interests of the people who live and work there,” Torres Small told the News-Sun in a telephone interview Thursday morning from the nation’s capital. “And I do support a higher federal minimum wage, but I think that it has to be in line with the realities on the ground in New Mexico, what’s right for our home.”
Torres Small said the Raise the Wage Act bill is a one-size-fits-all approach that fails to consider regional differences in costs of living, and a nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office study that concluded the bill would cost 1.3 million job losses nationally.
“As we know in the enormously vast district that I represent, that wage varies a whole lot,” said Torres Small, whose Second Congressional District spans the southern half of New Mexico. “In the southeastern part of the state, the wages are actually much higher than the federal minimum wage.”
The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour. Democrats note the federal minimum wage hasn’t been raised since 2009.
“But there are places, especially in rural New Mexico, where we’ve got small businesses that are struggling to stay open, so they can continue to support the communities where they are, to make sure that people still have good restaurants and grocery stores and other amenities, and to make sure that they are providing jobs for people who want to stay and live and reach their best opportunities in rural New Mexico,” Torres Small said.
Due to the recent state legislation, the state minimum wage will rise to $9 an hour on Jan. 1, increasing to $10.50 on Jan. 1, 2021; to $11.50 on Jan. 1, 2022; and topping out at $12 on Jan. 1, 2023.
Torres Small said the upcoming increases in the state minimum wage were a factor in her decision to vote against raising the federal minimum wage to $15.
“The New Mexico Legislature just considered this and what would be appropriate, and their determination was that going to $12 was the right call,” she said. “It was really hard for me, especially with a lot of the conversations I was having with small business owners from places like Santa Rosa, from places like Roswell, who said that anything higher was going to be a big challenge.”
Torres Small said she is supportive of federal minimum wage legislation that calculates a new floor based on regional costs of living and purchasing power, and that she also prefers giving small businesses a tiered system that distinguishes between high school age employees 18 and younger and workers supporting a family with their wages.
The Raise the Wage Act vote held Thursday morning was the latest in a series of contentious votes in the U.S. House of Representatives in recent days amid a political storm in Washington, D.C. as Trump spars with a group of House freshman Democrats over controversial Tweets and statements from both sides.
The House voted against impeaching Trump Wednesday, on which Torres Small sided with Republicans, and for finding Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Jr. in contempt of Congress, on which Torres Small sided with Democrats.
Torres Small, D-Las Cruces, told the News-Sun from Capitol Hill Thursday there have been several bills on which she has shown herself to be an independent vote in her first six months in Congress.
“This certainly isn’t the first time that I’ve done it,” she said of breaking ranks with Democrats on the minimum wage bill. “I stepped out on this one because I wanted to make sure that I was representing New Mexico.”
Torres Small said she has voted independently since taking office in January.
“For example, I voted against a gun measure that would have extended the wait time for a background check if there were flags raised,” she said. “And I was concerned about the impact that would have, especially in rural New Mexico. Folks who go hunting, it would have extended the wait time actually longer than hunting season. That could be a problem, especially because sometimes the reason why flags are raised are with discrepancies with addresses. And that’s going to disproportionately affect rural communities. I was also concerned about the impact it would have on veterans. I always look carefully at the legislation and make sure that I am standing up for New Mexico.”
On Wednesday, Torres Small was one of 95 Democrats who voted against a bill impeaching Trump for alleged “high misdemeanors.” The majority of House Democrats, 137, voted for impeachment while 194 of the 197 House Republicans voted against it. Three House Republicans did not vote.
“That was another example of where I was stepping out against the party to do what’s right for New Mexico,” Torres Small said. “I believe strongly in transparency and accountability, but I also believe that my biggest job is to serve New Mexico and to focus on the things that will most matter for New Mexicans. That’s why every chance I get, I make sure we’re talking about making sure that health care is both affordable and that we can get to our health care appointments close to home. That’s why I’m focused on helping develop our local economies with investments like good, reliable internet and cellphone service and making sure that we are supporting rural places.
“So that’s what I’m focused in. And frankly, I get concerned that people are spending so much time trying to drive folks apart in D.C. I think we’ve got to focus on working together.”
Asked directly if she believed Trump has done anything to merit impeachment, Torres Small said she did not believe the House was ready to make that determination. The vote Wednesday only tabled the impeachment bill.
“We still have more information we need to gather, and more importantly, we need to focus on what we can do for the people we represent,” she said.
Torres Small sided with Democrats Wednesday in a highly partisan 230-198 vote to hold Barr and Ross in criminal contempt of Congress for failing to comply with subpoenas seeking information about the Trump administration’s decision to seek a citizenship question on the 2020 census.
“I did vote in support of that one because, as I mentioned, we do have an important transparency and oversight responsibility,” Torres Small said. “And part of that is making sure that we are conducting hearings to get all the information possible to make sure that we are enacting laws that really serve our country. There were folks who wanted to bring (Ross) to testify on implementation on the census. I’ve been in Hobbs talking about the importance of the complete count. I’ve spoken with business leaders and it is a nonpartisan issue to make sure that we have every single person in southern New Mexico counted.
“At that meeting in Hobbs, a constituent raised the concern about how a potential citizenship question would impact New Mexico’s ability to serve our communities, whether it’s a business making a decision about where to locate another store or whether it is the federal government figuring out how to allocate important infrastructure money for our safe, reliable roads. That is why the census is so important and we have to make sure that we have all the information to do that. And so when a government official refuses to help provide that information, we’ve got to hold them accountable.”
Flummoxed by a U.S. Supreme Court decision and subsequent decisions by federal judges refusing to let the Department of Justice withdraw lawyers from a lawsuit about the census, Trump announced last week that he is backing off the effort to include a citizenship question in the 2020 census and is instead issuing an executive order directing departments and agencies to better share data related to the number of citizens and noncitizens in the country.