Democrats face ire of women over loss of paid leave
Democrats risk disappointing female voters by cutting out a major expansion of paid family and medical leave from a compromise social policy bill.
President Biden campaigned on extending paid leave to working women and men and initially proposed 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave as part of his sweeping domestic agenda.
But the proposal was whittled down to four weeks and eventually cut entirely from the package because of opposition from centrist Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).
Advocates see the development as a major setback, particularly as women face more difficulty reentering the workforce as the nation claws its way out of the pandemic-induced economic crisis.
Female voters will be critical to Democratic hopes in the midterm elections and some see a risk that cutting out the provision could dampen support.
“It’s such an unforced error,” said Democratic strategist Christy Setzer. “Like universal pre-K, the genius of paid leave is that it’s easy to understand and makes a tremendous difference in our lives. Whether you get employer-paid leave or not, every woman with children remembers the anxiety around revealing their pregnancy at work, and the scramble to find childcare while your body recovers.
“I don’t know that voters will punish Dems for not getting this done — it’s hard to miss what you’ve never had — but man, what a missed opportunity,” Setzer added. “Just think if we’d gotten universal pre-K, paid leave and childcare over the line. Women would be lined up around the block to evangelize about it.”
Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, also said leaving out paid family leave qualified as a risk for Democrats. She said “women, when they voted in the last election, were voting for people who they thought were going to fight for paid leave.”
An Oct. 27 memo from Democratic polling firm Lake Research Partners commissioned by the National Partnership called paid leave a “crucial component” of Biden’s plan because of its popularity. It cites polling showing that 87 percent of Democrats, 63 percent of Independents and 43 percent of Republicans favor paid leave.
Democrats insist that the compromise package unveiled by Biden will still be transformative for American families even without the paid leave provision.
No Republicans have vocalized support for paid leave and Democrats intend to pass the package without GOP support through budget reconciliation, meaning they need each Democratic senator on board.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), a major proponent of paid leave, appeared exasperated when she addressed the elimination of the program on Thursday but said it wouldn’t detract from the rest of the package.
“I’m still fighting for paid leave. I frankly have a hard time debating it because I don’t understand why we wouldn’t have that. But nonetheless, that does not undermine the fact that we have nearly a trillion dollars in universal pre-K, child care, child tax credit, home health care, and the rest,” Pelosi told reporters during a news conference. “One program, as important as it is, does not subtract from the rest of it.”
Pelosi also dinged Manchin, noting that he voted in favor of a defense policy bill that included paid leave for federal employees during the Trump administration.
Some advocates are holding out hope that the measure could still be inserted back in the package.
“We cannot accept a final Build Back Better deal without paid leave. We just can’t,” said Giovanna Lockhart, a senior adviser for Paid Leave for the US. “While this initial deal falls short of what working people need and deserve, we are committed to fighting to ensure that the final legislation includes a federal framework for paid family and medical leave.”
“Women voters are a super majority and paid leave is incredibly popular,” Lockhart added. “I think this is yet another reminder that we need more women in Congress.”
Paid Leave for the US is hosting an event in New York on Sunday outside Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) home to put pressure on him to get paid leave back into the bill.
The issue was also highlighted this week by television journalist and mother Kasie Hunt, who recently had surgery to remove a benign tumor from her brain.
Taking to Twitter, Hunt wrote, “If paid leave is left out of this bill, I’m going to spend the midterms covering how suburban women who turned on the GOP over Trump are responding to Democratic governing in DC — especially after the pandemic.”
But Ness and other advocates said their fight isn’t over.
“I don’t accept that it is out of play. It is very much in play. We have many champions that are fighting for it,” said Ness.
Sources say that senators including Democratic Sens. Kristen Gillibrand (N.Y.), Patty Murray (Wash.) Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Ron Wyden (Ore.) and Mark Kelly (Ariz.) are still pushing for the issue to be included in the legislation.
Murray, in a statement, lauded the framework, but called it “downright shameful that America is the only developed nation where working people are not guaranteed paid leave if they have a child, get seriously ill, or need to take care of a loved one.”
Still, an effort to get paid leave back in the bill seems likely to be fruitless for the time being.
The White House insists that Biden will continue to fight for it after the sweeping spending package is passed, but a path forward is highly uncertain.
“Ultimately, the President believes this is the framework that will pass the House and the Senate,” White House principal deputy press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters during a gaggle aboard Air Force One on Thursday. “Paid leave, medical leave is something that was critical and important to him. He campaigned on it. And he’s going to — he’s going to continue to work on that.”
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