WASHINGTON — Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, who was elected in 1992 as a self described “mom in tennis shoes,” has been fighting for paid family and medical leave for decades. For much of this year she appeared to be winning.
But a proposal that had been championed by President Joe Biden — up to 12 paid weeks off to recover from major illness, childbirth or to take care of family members — was jettisoned this week from a far-reaching social spending package after a fellow Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, refused to support it.
It’s a defeat, for now, that has stung for Murray and other veteran female lawmakers.
“We are not going to allow one man tell all of the women in this country that they can’t have paid leave,” she told reporters on Wednesday, before heading to the Senate floor to continue lobbying the 74-year-old Manchin.
All Senate Republicans have signaled opposition to the larger package, but Democrats need every one of their members to support the $1.75 trillion package for it to pass the 50-50 Senate. When the White House released a framework of the legislation Thursday morning, paid leave was glaringly absent.
“It is outrageous and shameful” that the plan was taken out of the legislation, says Molly Day, the executive director of the advocacy group Paid Leave for the United States. “Our view on this moment is that we have every ounce of momentum required to pass this.”
Democrats are enthusiastic about many other elements of the package aimed at helping families, including universal preschool, money for child care and a one-year extension of a child tax credit.
But the loss of paid family and medical leave has cut deep for supporters who have pushed for years to bring the United States on the level with most of the world’s other wealthy countries – according to one study of the world’s most developed countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. was the only one of 35 countries not to provide any paid parental leave. And the advocates argue that the need is even more acute coming out of the coronavirus pandemic that has been devastating to many workers, especially women caregivers.
The proposal’s elimination came after a long series of negotiations to pare it back — first from 12 weeks to four weeks, with last-minute negotiations looking at leave just for new parents. The cost of the various proposals has ranged from roughly $100 billion to $500 billion, a major obstacle as Manchin and another moderate Democratic senator, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have demanded that the original $3.5 trillion package be brought down by around half.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a negotiator on the paid leave proposal, said Thursday that she is still talking to Manchin about how a leave policy could be salvaged. Gillibrand said that Manchin has told her in private talks that he is concerned about the cost and its effect on Social Security and other programs, and that she has argued back that investing in paid leave increases the possibility that parents and other caregivers will return to work, boosting Social Security and the economy.
Still, she said Manchin is “not focused on specifics” of the proposal at this point. His office did not respond to a request for comment about the talks.
“This is going to be a continuous conversation,” Gillibrand said. “And if we can get it in this deal, amazing. If we cannot, I will keep working on it until we pass paid leave.”
Gillibrand said she would still vote for the overall bill, which includes the other priorities that she and other Democrats say will be “transformative” for families.
House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut, who has served in Congress more than 30 years, first worked on family and medical leave as a Senate staffer in the late 1980s. She championed President Bill Clinton’s signature of the Family Medical Leave Act in 1993, which granted time off but no pay, as a good first step.
She says she has been “on this road ever since” pushing for the time to be compensated by the government.
DeLauro calls the proposal’s elimination a “tragedy” but says it is still a victory that they got so close, and that many companies and states now have paid leave policies in place. A bill to provide pandemic aid last year also temporarily guaranteed paid sick leave for millions of workers.
“It took us 28 years to get to this point,” since the passage of FMLA, DeLauro said. “Lord knows we’re not going to wait for another 28 years to get it paid.”
Maya Rossin-Slater, an associate professor in health policy at Stanford University who studies paid leave, agrees, saying she is “optimistic in terms of the conversation that has been going on” and the level of national attention that the issue has received since Biden included it in his proposal.
“It’s not going to go away, and it’s now on people’s radar as an important issue,” Rossin-Slater said.
As for Biden, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that he had fought for it to be included. But he wasn’t going see the plan fall apart because of it, she said.
She said his preference would be for it to be 12 weeks and expansive, but there were not enough votes for that in Congress. “That's a reality of legislating,” she said.
For many female senators, the issue is personal. Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat, was the first senator to give birth in office three years ago, and has argued that everyone should have the same paid leave she had as a senator.
Murray also spoke of her own pregnancy back in 1993, when she gave one of her first Senate floor speeches praising the FMLA. She talked about trying to take care of her parents after they had been sick and a friend who had struggled to take time off as a young son was dying of leukemia. Murray said then that the new law would mean that people “will not be forced to choose between our job and our family” when they go to work.
On Thursday, Murray said it was “downright shameful” that America is the only developed nation where working people are not guaranteed paid leave.
“I think I’ve made it abundantly clear I’m going to keep fighting to get paid leave included,” she said.
Associated Press writer Colleen Long contributed to this report.