WASHINGTON — While all eyes are on the potentially earth-moving GOP-driven abortion case before the Supreme Court, across the street at the Capitol a long forgotten — at least in America, and just about only in America — side of the family planning remains the center of a bitter feud: Whether to provide federal paid family leave or remain the international outlier the U.S. continues to be when it comes to this social safety net.
Democrats are still trying to solidify the support from enough members of their own party to secure federal paid family leave — a policy aimed at providing mandatory time off for, say, new mothers, independent contracts (like these two co-authors penning this) and those with sick family members.
Democrats are frustrated with most congressional Republicans for their vehement anti-abortion stances while they simultaneously refuse to pass legislation currently pending before Congress to support infants and their new parents alike.
“There’s a lot of hypocrisy — if it’s only hypocrisy,” Rep. Primilla Jayapal (D-WA) told The News Station at the Capitol after the justices heard the abortion case. “I think ultimately it’s about control of a certain group of people.”
While some, more moderate Republicans could potentially support some version of family leave, they say they can’t even entertain the measure it’s currently included in — President Joe Biden’s signature Build Back Better proposal and its current $1.85 trillion price tag. The package already passed the House. Not a single Republican supported it. One Democrat opposed it.
In the Senate, with no GOP allies in sight, Biden and Democratic leaders have no margin of error within their own party. And they remain at an impasse with Sen. Joe Manchin — a West Virginia Democrat calling for a bipartisan solution to paid family leave, even as his vote would enable Democrats to make history today on a program many have promised voters for decades now.
Democrats need a legislative win as they round the corner into 2022 and the ominous-looking midterms. And paid family leave moves voters. Proponents are making sure wavering senators, along with nervous rank and file Democrats, see the new data they compiled showcasing the popularity of this measure in purplish states.
Democratic pollsters Global Strategy Group (GSG) and advocates Paid Leave for All Action recently unveiled results from their targeted survey of eight battleground states focused on paid family leave. In those eight states — Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Nevada, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — voters picked a generic Democrat who supported the program over a Republican who opposed it by more than 15 points.
“It’s not a novel finding that Democrats are having trouble breaking through on messaging,” Celinda Lake, one of the Democratic Party’s leading political strategists, said of the research on a press call last week. Failing to pass paid leave would be a “huge missed opportunity” to show voters Democrats are going to deliver for them and their families, Lake said.
The four weeks of paid leave now before the Senate were already whittled down from the original 12, and the Democratic Party — well, basically every federally elected Democrat in the nation sans Sens. Manchin and seemingly Sinema, along with Rep. Jared Golden of Maine who opposed it in the House — hope the compromise will be enough to get the bill through.
“What we passed represents a transformative set of investments,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) told The News Station. “Could we have done more? Well, you can always do more. And there were things we wanted, but this is about compromise, and what the market will bear, and we pushed that pretty far.”
Even with House Democrats wanting to go farther, party leaders are still fighting behind the scenes to simply maintain the meager four weeks they were able to secure in the House-passed version. Many proponents say this is the last best chance to make any headway.
“Passing paid leave in the Build Back Better Act is the only way that we will win paid leave in this country for everyone in any reasonable time frame,” Vicky Shabo — a senior fellow at the public policy think tank New America — told reporters on the press call.
As it stands, the paid leave provision guarantees four weeks of paid leave to new parents, those dealing with their own serious medical conditions and those who need leave to take care of a loved one with a serious medical issue.
The bill differs from already existing family and medical leave legislation – namely the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, which provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave – in important ways beyond the obvious one of compensation. First, the paid leave act would apply to all employers regardless of size and all employees regardless of their job type or how long they had been working there.
It would also broaden the definition of family members outlined in the FMLA to include anyone “whose association with the individual is equivalent of a family relationship.”
Lastly, it would make paid leave available to self-employed workers.
Paid leave is one of the few things most Americans agree on. It’s the only policy a majority of voters from every party support, aside from allowing Medicare to negotiate drug prices. A whopping 80% of all voters support paid leave for workers with a serious illness, according to GSG and Paid Leave for All’s polling, while 76% support paid leave for workers caring for a sick family member and 72% support paid leave for workers with new-born children.
Still, many House Democrats remain optimistic about the bill’s prospects — in part because they’ve already made dramatic concessions within their own ranks.
“I’m not going to speculate about failure, I’d rather speculate about success,” Connolly of Virginia told TNS. “We got it down, after talking to Manchin and Sinema, to four weeks from 12, and my hope is that that will survive the Senate version.”
If it doesn’t, as others quietly fear, the fight will likely continue on at the state level. Since the FMLA was passed in 1993, nine states — California, Colorado, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Washington — and the District of Columbia have stepped in to provide paid leave policies to their residents.