Democrats and Republicans came together on Wednesday at a Senate hearing to push for a paid parental leave program but remained sharply divided over the scope of the new benefit and how to pay for it.
Traditionally, Democrats have been more interested in creating a federal paid leave, as GOP lawmakers have been worried about the price tag and increasing the size of government.
But Republicans’ interest is growing, particularly because the issue is a top priority for Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser. She attended the hearing, as did several Republican House members.
“I thought it was an excellent hearing,” Trump said following the proceedings. “To make progress and advance legislation that can be signed into law, we need to bring both sides together to discuss the merit of different policy proposals and ultimately bridge the differences. And I’m hopeful this is a step in the right direction.”
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who testified at the hearing, sounded a similar note of optimism that the two parties could come together.
“The good news is that both sides of the aisle recognize that this is a national problem,” she said.
But clear differences remain.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) spoke in favor of the GOP approach she’s been working on with Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), which would allow new parents to draw from their Social Security in exchange for delaying their retirement benefits. The approach is based on a proposal from the conservative Independent Women's Forum.
“We are still working through the complexities, but I am hopeful we can craft a policy that will benefit most families and those who need it the most,” Ernst said.
It was no coincidence that Wednesday’s hearing — the first in four years specifically about paid leave — was the first before the Senate Finance Committee’s subcommittee on Social Security, Pensions and Family Policy.
Gillibrand, meanwhile, made the case for her bill, known as the FAMILY Act, which would create a national paid family and medical leave program financed through payroll taxes.
She said her approach would benefit a larger swath of people and create more flexibility, and allow small businesses to compete with large corporations that were more likely to offer benefits.
“A small business today can’t compete with a Facebook or a Google or an Ernst and Young,” she said.
Gillibrand also said her bill “does not create a false choice” between getting paid leave and having your retirement benefits cut — a shot at Ernst's plan.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the subcommittee’s ranking member, tore into the GOP approach to link a parental leave benefit to Social Security.
“Unfortunately, the approach some of our colleagues are currently proposing amounts to cutting Social Security for the workers who need it most,” said Brown. “Using retirement security to fund time off from work when you have a child is not paid leave at all. It’s robbing from your retirement to be able to care for loved ones now.”
Vicki Shabo, a vice president at the National Partnership for Women & Families, said there were serious problems with the Republican approach. She argued it offered a lower level of benefit during the time off and would lead to a 12 percent cut in Social Security retirement benefits. Beyond that, it would only cover parental leave, leaving people facing medical or family emergencies, such as a sick child or parent, out of luck.
But Andrew G. Biggs, a resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said there was reason to think Social Security benefits wouldn’t be harmed.
A paid leave policy in California led women’s wages to rise, he said, which would ultimately boost their total contribution to Social Security, not pare it down.
“Most of the so-called gender wage gap is in truth the result of falling female wages post-childbirth,” Biggs said.
The plan in California more closely resembles the Democratic approach.
The Republican chairman of the subcommittee, Sen. Bill Cassidy (La.), did not talk specifically about the idea that Ernst spoke about but said that it’s important to preserve retirement benefits. He noted that the Social Security trust funds are expected to be exhausted by 2034.
“Any proposal that relies on Social Security cannot weaken Social Security, and ideally strengthens [it],” he said.
But Cassidy also expressed concerns with increasing payroll taxes for a new benefit, as Gillibrand is proposing. He said that if Congress ever needs to raise payroll taxes, it should be to fund current obligations.
Rubio is expected to unveil a bill in the near future based on the Social Security idea, following a meeting with Trump, Ernst and Lee on Tuesday. It is still unclear what prospects it has of moving forward amid a packed legislative agenda.
Rubio tweeted after that meeting that there are “a few items left to tighten up but we are very close to having a bill we hope can garner widespread support.”
When asked about the Social Security idea after Wednesday’s hearing, Trump said that she supports “a national paid leave plan that can be signed into law.” She also said her preference would be to go beyond just parental leave but the priority is to get something done because the U.S. currently has no paid leave.
Trump made her case for bipartisan support of paid family leave in an op-ed for Fox News published Wednesday morning.
She said that while paid family leave may seem like a far cry from Republican values, such programs are actually in the vein of an “intrinsically conservative nature.”
“Social conservatives underscore paid leave as a way to forge more tightly bonded families and protect infants and parents at their most vulnerable,” she wrote.
Trump acknowledged the historical lack of bipartisan support but pressed her case for Republicans to support paid family leave.
“No doubt, members of Congress will have diverse opinions about how to structure the policy and how to pay for it,” she wrote. “But rather than allowing differences to prevent progress, our lawmakers are coming together to find the best solution.”
Rubio tweeted out a link to the op-ed and his support for a bill that “has a chance of actually becoming law.”