The goal to pass a national paid family leave law has turned a corner in the halls of Congress, with conservatives showing more openness to taking action after President Trump declared support for the benefit.
Advocates who have long pushed for paid family leave say that the level of interest by lawmakers has been unprecedented, although how to go about it remains divisive.
"A number of Republicans are looking at this issue and are grappling at the best way to do it," said Vicki Shabo, vice president for workplace policies and strategies at the National Partnership for Women and Families. "That's new and encouraging."
Trump showed his support for a family leave policy during his State of the Union address in January, and Ivanka Trump, the president's daughter who works as one of his advisers, has taken on the cause by meeting with various senators. The White House is still deciding on which avenue it will take, though the president's budget recommended six weeks of paid family leave by allowing states to use unemployment insurance.
"We put our proposal in the budget as a flag in the ground to start a conversation, and we have spent a lot of time listening, learning and exploring a variety of issues," a White House official said.
Under the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act, employers with 50 workers or more must allow 12 weeks of leave every year so they care for a new child or an ill parent, but in most cases, the leave isn't paid. The U.S. stands in contrast to other industrialized nations that have set a mandatory or subsidized leave policy.
Conservative Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida, Mike Lee of Utah, and Joni Ernst of Iowa have discussed paid family leave with Ivanka Trump. They recently have been examining a proposal that would allow new parents to draw from their Social Security benefits early. The proposal from the conservative Independent Women's Forum would make the provision available to each spouse for up to 12 weeks, for a total of 24 weeks, for each child who has been born or adopted. In return, parents would defer their retirement benefits for the amount of time necessary to offset the cost of their parental benefits.
The Independent Women's Forum is still studying the issue, but has hypothesized that the time delayed in retirement would be less than 12 weeks because individuals’ earnings typically increase substantially from their 20s to their early 60s, meaning the parental benefits would cost less than retirement benefits.
A bill outlining the plan hasn't been drafted, but a document detailing how it would work has gained the attention of senators who want an option that would neither raise taxes nor impose a mandate on employers.
"We all understand it's something that's long overdue, and we just need to figure out a serious pathway forward," Ernst told the Washington Examiner. "We understand it's tough."
She has been looking at the Social Security proposal, saying that as a conservative, she believes in supporting ways to nurture families.
"It's time for Congress to get to work on this issue," Ernst said. "It does impact so many people's lives."
Carrie Lukas, president of the Independent Women's Forum, notes that until now, her organization has been working to make a case against paid family leave, fearing many approaches would do more harm than good. Now, she said she is excited by the Social Security approach. The proposal would be aimed at people who do not currently receive paid leave.
"We don't want to do to our compensation system what Obamacare did to our health insurance system," Lukas said. "Some people were hurting, but Obamacare changed the insurance contracts for every single American. We need to focus on those falling through the cracks."
Some states, including California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island offer paid family leave through payroll taxes paid for by employees, and New York joined their ranks this year.
That policy is the option a large swath of Democratic members of Congress back at the national level, through a bill introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., called the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, or Family Act. The bill would allow leave for circumstances other than a new child, including if a family member gets sick or if someone needs to take time off to undergo treatment for an illness. During that time, people would be guaranteed 66 percent of their regular earnings or up to $4,000 a month. The proposal is similar to short-term disability coverage some employers offer.
Gillibrand has been critical of the conservative proposal, calling it "shortsighted" and saying that people do not receive enough Social Security benefits.
"We need to pass a paid leave program that is comprehensive, affordable, gender-neutral, and covers all of life’s unexpected medical events," she said in a statement. "This bill fails that test."
Other critics say that low-income workers, larger families, older adults, and women would be hit the hardest by the Social Security proposal.
"It's encouraging to me that the dialogue has moved to a bipartisan dialogue, but the details matter tremendously," said Shabo, whose organization supports the Family Act. She pointed out that most people who use 12 weeks of leave tend to do it out of personal illness or needing to take care of a family member who is sick or disabled. She noted that was likely to continue as the baby boomers age and need more caregivers.
"There is no reason not to have both a strong Social Security system and a strong, comprehensive, inclusive, and sustainable paid family leave and medical program," she said, adding: "I think it needs to be addressed in the right way, because we don't often revisit social or economic policy in this country."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who is still in the nascent stages of drafting a proposal, has looked at the Social Security idea and responded to some of the criticisms on Twitter, saying that his goal won't be a "perfect plan" but "60 votes for law better than status quo."
One of Rubio's aides noted that he was the first GOP presidential candidate to run on a paid family leave plan and lobbied to have the child tax credit increased in the GOP tax law.
"What's noteworthy here is that we're beginning to see Republicans rally behind an issue that is typically associated with the Left. The momentum is encouraging," the aide said.
As with opinions in Congress, the concept is broadly supported by the public but diverges when it comes to the specifics. According to a Pew Research Center survey released roughly a year ago, roughly 90 percent of the public says people should be able to take leave from work for family or medical reasons. The public is split, however, on whether the federal government should require employers to pay their employees when they take leave. Forty-five percent say they would favor the government providing tax credits to employers that offer leave, and 39 percent favor workers putting aside contributions in a pretax account.
The White House has acknowledged that coming to a consensus on the issue will be difficult.
"We know how hard it’s going to be to get this done," a White House official said. "If it were easy, it would be done already, but we are committed to getting it done. We are pleased by the robust conversation we have gotten around the issue."