Democrats are running out of road in their pursuit of universal paid leave, and the GOP isn’t building them an off-ramp.
The Senate is on the precipice of tossing a national paid family and medical leave program from President Joe Biden’s $1.7 trillion climate and social spending bill at the behest of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.). Manchin says he supports enacting paid leave, but wants to do it separately to allow for Republican input.
Yet Democrats say there’s not enough common ground with Republicans and are encouraging Manchin to rethink his position. They say seeking future negotiations with the GOP is a pipe dream given the lack of Republican enthusiasm for sweeping new benefits programs.
“I’ve urged Sen. Manchin that there are many things that we can do on a bipartisan basis. But they do not include a universal earned benefit. It does not include something that’s mandatory,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who’s doggedly trying to sway Manchin.
Gillibrand maintains the only way to cover West Virginians with low incomes is “a universal mandatory benefit. And the only chance of ever covering them would be something we would do now during reconciliation.”
Manchin sees things differently, saying this week he believes “there’s a bipartisan pathway forward.” Yet in interviews on Tuesday, Republicans said they’d prefer a far more limited approach than the House’s proposal, which would provide workers with four weeks of paid family and medical leave. And that’s assuming a GOP appetite to work on the policy exists at all.
If Manchin succeeds in dropping the paid leave program, it would be a major blow to Democrats’ efforts to bring the U.S. in line with most other developed countries. Right now, America is the only wealthy nation without some form of paid leave at a national level. The House originally sought 12 weeks of paid leave, but the White House dropped it from its framework citing Manchin’s objections. House leadership then shoehorned a four-week version back into the bill before passing it, effectively punting the issue to the Senate.
Now, Democrats are considering the possibility that their signature bill — confronting childcare, education, climate change and tax reform — could shirk a benefit most in the party think represents an obvious political win given its bipartisan popularity.
And if the social spending bill sheds paid leave, it may head the way of elections reform. Manchin tried to recruit Republicans onto his compromise bills and ended up with only the support of Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska on the Republican side, far short of the 10 needed to clear a bill through the Senate.
“We passed unpaid leave when I first became a senator in 1993, and we were told that we would be able to get a paid leave policy bipartisan,” said Senate HELP Chair Patty Murray (D-Wash.). “Here we are 30 years later, and we don’t have it. So I don’t know where the miracle is that as soon as we get [the social spending bill] passed, there’s going to be some bipartisan paid leave program.”
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), among the most amenable Republicans to working with Democrats, said she would essentially like to start back at the drawing board since Senate Democrats’ legislation isn’t going through the normal review process.
“What we should do is go through the committee process and look at all the options, hear from the experts on what would make the biggest difference,” Collins said in an interview.
The House-passed program would cost around $200 billion — in line with the $225 billion Biden initially proposed. It would cover all workers wishing to take paid time off to deal with the birth of a newborn, care for a family member or recover from an illness or injury, among other situations, beginning in 2024.
Workers with average incomes would receive around two-thirds of their pay, while workers with lower incomes would receive a greater share of their pay and workers with higher incomes would receive a smaller share. The benefit would be capped at around $800 a week.
Republicans are waiting to see if Manchin moves to strip out the paid leave provision on the Senate floor — or if leadership removes it preemptively to appease him. If that doesn’t happen, Republicans may challenge whether the paid leave provisions of the bill meet the budget reconciliation rules that allow Democrats to pass Biden’s social spending legislation with a simple majority vote, according to a Republican close to the issue.
If Manchin follows through on taking out the program, Congressional Democrats are skeptical that their GOP colleagues would ever come on board with a paid leave measure that the White House supports.
“I hear them express that they support it but then they want to plunder Social Security in order to pay for it,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said of Republicans.
And, it turns out, Republicans share Democrats’ skepticism.
“There are some who say it needs to be universal and I just don’t see that happening,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who is close friends with Gillibrand. “She’s not bought into my idea and I’m not bought into hers.”
Funding the benefit with a payroll tax, which Manchin prefers and could be eligible to pass via reconciliation, would violate the Biden administration’s pledge to not raise taxes on middle-class families. And Republicans oppose business mandates, which they say would burden employers at an inopportune time.
GOP-aligned corporate America expressed interest in a paid leave policy that preempts state laws, smoothing the patchwork for employers, but Democrats are unlikely to support anything that overwrites more robust local benefits. The Republican-backed idea of tax credits would also not address those concerns.
As part of the 2017 tax cut, congressional Republicans enacted a tax credit pilot program for employers who provided qualifying workers with paid family and medical leave. Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who helped write that provision, said in an interview she wants Biden to champion that law before she’s willing to entertain further paid leave reform.
So paid leave advocates are insistent that when it comes to instituting paid leave, it’s either now in the party-line bill — or decades down the road.
“If Manchin believes that, I’d love to see the list of 60 senators who would support that,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, director of Paid Leave for All. “It’s disingenuous to say that there’s another way to get this done.”
Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce acknowledges that the odds of both sides reaching a bipartisan agreement on the policy are slim at best. Like Manchin, the group wants paid leave to be enacted outside reconciliation.
“We have to get past this attempt to include a costly and ineffective paid leave program in reconciliation. Then I’m hopeful that we can resume discussions,” Marc Freedman, vice president of employment policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said. “Whether we come up with something that we all support is hard to say right now.”