The issue of paid family leave is receiving renewed attention from the White House and lawmakers in both parties, putting it in the spotlight ahead of the 2020 election.
Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and senior adviser, met with a group of Republican senators on Wednesday to discuss ways to push the issue forward. And Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who is running for president, reintroduced her legislation Tuesday to create a federal paid family and medical leave program.
Republicans and Democrats have different thoughts about how to approach paid family leave, and legislation on the issue is unlikely to be enacted in the immediate future. But the latest flurry of activity is putting new momentum behind an issue that lawmakers have long struggled with.
“This is definitely a hot issue, as it should be, because there’s a crisis in this country that must be addressed,” said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, executive director of MomsRising, which supports Gillibrand’s bill.
The United States is the only country in the industrialized world without a federal paid family leave guarantee. Democrats have long had an interest in creating a federal paid family leave program. More recently, there has been interest from some Republicans in doing so as well.
President Trump said in his State of the Union address that he was “proud to be the first president to include in my budget a plan for nationwide paid family leave, so that every new parent has the chance to bond with their newborn child.” His budgets have floated six weeks of paid leave for new parents through the federal unemployment insurance program.
Ivanka Trump said in a statement after the meeting that she and the senators “had a productive conversation about paid family leave policy focused on the bipartisan desire to find a solution that supports American workers and families.”
Cassidy convened a Senate Finance Committee subcommittee hearing on paid family leave last year, and Rubio released a bill last year that would allow people to receive paid parental leave through Social Security in exchange for deferring Social Security benefits when they retire by about three to six months.
But Senate Republicans haven’t put forward a bill collectively as a group. Rubio said it will take some time for the GOP to pass legislation.
“This is a work in progress,” Rubio told The Hill after the meeting. “For us, this is a start-up effort. This is not an issue that’s traditionally been associated with the Republican Party.”
He said he didn’t know if other Republicans will sign on to his bill, but “other Republicans will begin to support whatever the consensus position becomes.”
“For me, it isn’t about my idea versus somebody else’s; it’s about starting the process of getting as many people as possible thinking about it and arriving at a point that we can craft something that would make a difference and that can pass,” Rubio added.
One day before the GOP meeting, Gillibrand reintroduced her legislation that would provide up to 12 weeks of partial wages for people caring for a new child or personal or family health issue. She would cover the costs of the new paid leave program through a small increase in payroll taxes for employees and employers.
“This bill could not be passed soon enough, because nobody knows better than our families how hard it is to work and live without national paid leave,” Gillibrand said Tuesday at an event on the legislation’s reintroduction.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) reintroduced the legislation in the House, and Democrats expressed optimism that the bill could pass the lower chamber now that they have the majority.
Rep. Danny K. Davis (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Worker and Family support, said, “We are going to push it through the committee, and we’re not going to take all year to do it.”
But Republicans and Democrats have been critical of each other’s proposals, with GOP lawmakers expressing concerns over raising taxes and Democrats concerned that Rubio’s bill is limited to parental leave and would result in people having to choose between paid leave and receiving Social Security benefits when they retire.
Gillibrand has criticized President Trump, saying that he “doesn’t actually try to pass a real paid leave bill.” But she also said she’d sit down with any Republican interested in paid leave, including the president. Gillibrand and DeLauro both said they’ve spoken with Ivanka Trump.
The discussions about paid family leave come less than two years before the 2020 presidential election and after midterms that saw Democrats receiving support from female voters. Republicans and Democrats are expected to compete fiercely to win over female voters in 2020.
Gillibrand announced her presidential run earlier this year. Her bill is co-sponsored by several other current and potential Democratic presidential candidates, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
Gillibrand in particular is likely to make paid leave a key part of her campaign. She said during Tuesday’s event that people tell her they need paid leave when she’s in both her home state of New York and in the early presidential primary and caucus states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Democratic strategist Brad Bannon said he’d expect Gillibrand to talk a great deal about paid leave, noting that she has “described herself as the mom candidate.”
Bannon said he doesn’t think paid leave will be a top-tier issue in the election, but that health care will be a major issue and it could make sense for candidates to incorporate paid leave into their discussions about health care.
Talk about paid leave ahead of 2020 could also help Republicans appeal to women.
Carrie Lukas — president of the conservative Independent Women’s Forum, whose proposal inspired Rubio’s bill — said that “conservatives have been unfairly characterized as not caring about the challenges working families face.” Part of the way to address that is to discuss policies that will help women and workers without taking money out of their paychecks, she said.
Lukas said paid leave is an issue that many people are interested in, so “having those conversations and showing that Republicans are trying to find solutions and trying to find ways to help is important.”