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Bipartisan House pair hope to defy odds, forge a paid leave deal

Originally published in the Washington Post
Written by Leigh Ann Caldwell

Paid leave is an issue that has long eluded Congress.

And a divided Congress that is expected to battle over the basic functions of government doesn’t seem like the venue for striking a deal over a new government program.

But a bipartisan group of House members, led by Reps. Stephanie I. Bice (R-Okla.) and Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.), are hoping to defy the odds and move the country closer to a national paid leave program.

Bice and Houlahan shared an office hallway. They sit on the Armed Services panel. They have a fondness for tea. And they are both mothers with two daughters who are relatively new to Congress.

For a Republican from conservative Oklahoma and a Democrat from a wealthy swing district in Pennsylvania, that is more than enough to try to tackle an issue that has created big divides in the two parties.

“When you find somebody across the aisle who doesn’t dismiss you out of hand, then that’s a treasure, you know, that’s somebody to hold on to. And so I think that that’s kind of how we found each other on this,” Houlahan said of Bice.

Next week, Houlahan and Bice will announce the formation of a new task force that will include Republican Reps. Julia Letlow (La.) and Mariannette Miller-Meeks (Iowa), and Democratic Reps. Haley Stevens (Mich.) and Colin Allred (Texas).

Letlow, the first Republican woman elected to Congress from Louisiana and a mother of two young children whose husband died of covid just days before he was to be sworn into office in 2021, was invited by Bice as was Miller-Meeks. Allred has had two children since he was elected to Congress and has taken two parental leaves.

The group will hold its first meeting Feb. 7, before Biden delivers his State of the Union address.

One-quarter of all U.S. workers have access to paid family leave from their employer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Advocates plan to celebrate the upcoming 30th anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was the first time some workers’ jobs would be protected for taking unpaid leave because of the birth of a child or other qualified medical or family reasons.

Efforts to enhance those protections to include paid leave have been slow and incremental.

Houlahan was instrumental in passing a bill in 2019 that gave federal employees paid family leave. Bice wasn’t in office at the time, but she points to the 2017 tax-cut bill that gave employers who offer paid leave a tax credit as an example of progress. The two partnered in the Armed Services Committee to attach a provision to an annual defense policy bill last year that provided paid leave and postpartum support for mothers in the military.

Those programs are the few success stories amid a flutter of mostly partisan legislation and an informal bipartisan working group in the Senate led by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.).

Separately, Gillibrand sent a letter to the White House last week asking President Biden to include 12 weeks of paid leave in the budget he sends to Congress this year.

With House Republicans focused on spending cuts and shrinking the government, passing significant paid leave legislation is a daunting task.

“Of course I worry about that,” Houlahan said.

Houlahan and Bice said they are under no illusions about how hard enacting any paid leave legislation will be. So far they have no firm goals and are reluctant to talk about what they’d like to see as the end product of their working group. They will study past efforts and the success of state programs. Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have passed paid family leave laws, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Democrats have long championed a government-funded paid leave program while the few Republicans who have embraced the idea have favored providing tax incentives. There have also been proposals to create a program modeled after social security where workers to pay into the program.

Still, advocates see an opening for progress. Republicans’ push to brand the GOP as the party of the American worker has led some conservative lawmakers to adopt a more populist tone.

During the lead-up to a possible rail strike in the fall, a handful of Republicans, including Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.), sided with workers’ demand for paid sick leave.

But House Republicans have since embraced fiscal austerity and a smaller government as shown in the demands imposed on Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) for him to secure the speakership.

Houlahan and Bice said that covid has been a new catalyst in the conversation about paid leave as workers have had trouble finding employees and women have been reluctant to rejoin the workforce.

“I hear a lot about workforce issues across the board,” Bice said.

She said she met with an executive of the Oklahoma-based fast-food chain Sonic, who said it has been hard to find store managers. The executive said many are women and have said they can’t find child care.

“We now get … that the interconnectivity of health matters, the intersection of families and child care and the opportunity to take leave for one reason or another,” Houlahan said. “We acutely understand that now because of covid in a way that I don’t think that our society was able to understand it before.”

The covid employment challenge has led to more corporate engagement on the issue. Houlahan said that after word got out about the creation of the task force, AARP, small businesses and large corporations are looking to get involved in the process.

Executives from Etsy spent a day on Capitol Hill in December in part to discuss paid leave, which they said is a critical issue for their 5 million micro-entrepreneurs nationwide who use the platform to sell their goods.

“About a fifth of our sellers have said that access to paid leave is one of the top barriers to their ability to successfully grow their business,” said Raina Moskowitz, chief operating officer with Etsy. “The government plays an important role or should play an important role in making sure that they have access to the resources and paid leave policies that they need to be successful and thrive.”

Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) mentioned paid leave at one of her final news conferences as speaker last year as one goal she wasn’t able to accomplish.

It was dropped from the Democrats’ all-encompassing Build Back Better plan in the last Congress because it would make the bill more difficult to pass the Senate. But Pelosi put four weeks of paid leave back in at the last minute, despite even some liberal colleagues counseling her not to do it because it couldn’t clear the Senate.

That was a bridge too far for Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), who torpedoed the bill over multiple issues, including the late addition of a government-funded paid leave program. (Democrats eventually passed the Inflation Reduction Act, but the care economy components were not included.)

Pelosi said she has no regrets.

“It’s not a question of regret, it’s a question of more to be done,” Pelosi said. “That doesn’t mean we aren’t proud of what we have done. It just means it’s not finished and we have more to do.”