Republicans Now Support Paid Leave, Too. So Why Hasn’t It Passed?

Republicans Now Support Paid Leave, Too. So Why Hasn’t It Passed?


Paid leave has long been a Democratic cause, one that candidates rallied around at the debate Wednesday night. Now, it’s also a Republican one: They have recently embraced it with a flurry of new bills and a White House summit next month. The debate revealed minor divisions in the candidates’ approaches; the bigger differences, though, are between the two parties.

The big divide is over which workers would get paid time off and where the money would come from.

In general, Democrats support starting a new federal fund, financed by a payroll tax increase, that would provide paid leave for new parents and for workers with an illness or injury or with sick family members. (Three-quarters of people who use federal unpaid leave use it for their own health reasons or to care for family members other than newborns.)

Republican plans, and one bipartisan idea, focus more narrowly on new parents, with a different way to pay for it: People could dip into their own future federal benefits, and receive smaller benefits later.

Policymakers are addressing the fact that the United States is the only rich country with no federal paid leave, even though most parents work. The country’s lack of family-friendly policies is a factor in women’s stalled advancement in the work force and the country’s declining fertility rate, research shows.

The 2016 presidential campaign was the first in which Republican candidates, including Donald J. Trump, called for paid leave. Political analysts say the push is driven by Republicans trying to win back both family-filled suburbs that have turned Democratic and conservative women who have been turned off by President Trump.

“Republicans understand that their struggles with female voters, including and especially college-educated female voters, require attention and effort,” said Kristen Soltis Anderson, a Republican pollster.

Even a staunch conservative like Rick Santorum, a former senator, has become a vocal proponent — despite voting against the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, which gives certain workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave. At the Conservative Political Action Conference in February, he said the Republican Party’s base had changed from suburbanites to blue-collar workers, and the party needed to change with it.

“These are our people, and if you want to talk to them, if you want to take the Trump coalition and you want to continue that coalition, we better have answers,” he said.

Paid leave has widespread support among Americans: Large majorities support it for their own health needs, for a new baby and for family caregiving, according to two recent surveys, one by the Pew Research Center and another by bipartisan pollsters. But when it comes to how to pay for it, there’s less agreement, they found.

Democrats — led by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Representative Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut — introduced the Family Act in 2013. It would cover 12 weeks of partly paid leave for new parents and for workers who either are seriously ill or who have a close family member who is. It would operate essentially the same way that it does in eight states — through a fund financed by a 0.2 percent increase in payroll taxes for both employers and employees. At least two-thirds of people in the two surveys said they supported this financing method.

It is co-sponsored by all seven Democrats in Congress running for president. Other candidates have also endorsed it, and some have said they’d push for even longer leave, including Senator Kamala Harris of California.

“Six months’ paid family leave is meant to and is designed to adjust to the reality of women’s lives today,” she said at the debate Wednesday.

Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said three months was more financially realistic, but agreed on the need. “We must do this and we will do this,” she said.

Ellen Bravo, co-director of Family Values @ Work, who has spent her career working on family leave legislation, said, “It shouldn’t throw you off an economic cliff to be a good parent to your child, a good child to your parent or to follow doctors’ orders.”

The Family Act has been stalled in Congress since its introduction. Most Republicans say they refuse to consider a bill that would increase taxes.

One: Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey, who last month became the first in his party to co-sponsor the bill. A spokesman for him, Jeff Sagnip, said it was consistent with a “long-term record and commitment to providing compassionate support and job security” for families. Mr. Smith, who is anti-abortion, was also the sole Republican co-sponsor on another bill to help working women, the Paycheck Fairness Act.

Several Republican proposals would allow new parents to collect Social Security early and receive less when they retire — treating it more like an individual account than a social insurance fund. Sponsors of this legislation include Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, Representative Ann Wagner of Missouri and Representative Dan Crenshaw of Texas.

Some Republicans have also proposed letting people use pretax savings accounts to save for leave, and the 2017 tax overhaul included a credit for companies that voluntarily provide it.

A new bill — expected to be introduced in the next month — would use a similar strategy of tapping future benefits early. It would allow new parents to advance up to $5,000 of their annual child tax credits after a baby’s birth. The money could go to paid leave or other infant care expenses, and parents would collect a smaller credit for the next decade.

One sponsor of the bill is Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the only Democrat so far to endorse the idea of financing leave by collecting future benefits early. The other is Senator Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana and chairman of a Senate working group on paid family leave.

This week, Representative Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, and Representative Colin Allred, Democrat of Texas, said they would sponsor the House version.

There are three major disagreements between supporters of each approach, and the first is over which workers can use paid leave. The Family Act covers all family and medical caregiving, while the other bills cover only new parents.

“That is a very, very big difference,” Ms. DeLauro said. “It’s wonderful they got religion to think about one portion of this, but let’s go with a standard that meets every single need.”

“I’ve been there, done that,” Ms. DeLauro said. “You do something, you check the box and it’s over.”

But proponents of the narrower bills say they could coexist with a broader policy in the future. Senator Sinema called her idea a “partial solution,” but one that’s “possible in the political world we live in today,” speaking at an American Enterprise Institute and Brookings event in September.

Senator Cassidy said at the event, “If people decide to make the perfect the enemy of the good, we’re not going to go anyplace.”

Proponents of the plans to collect Social Security or the child tax credit early say they avoid raising taxes, and give people benefits at a time when they need them most.

Critics say it just postpones financial hardship to later in children’s lives, when their care is still expensive, or to retirement, when women generally already collect less Social Security. Just 3 percent of people surveyed after the Social Security idea was announced (but before the child tax credit one was) supported it.

“These proposals would ask families to have their current self borrow from their future self,” said Vicki Shabo, senior fellow on paid leave strategy at New America.

Trump administration advisers who have been working on paid leave say Ivanka Trump has been regularly conferring with members of Congress. The White House has not endorsed a specific plan and said that all ideas remained on the table, and that its main priority was a bill with bipartisan support and the votes to pass.

Research shows that paid leave can achieve various goals, like improving child and family health and helping women stay in the work force. But it also shows that policies can sometimes be ineffective or even backfire, depending on the details. A bill that could pass would be important; so would the policy design.





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