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Paid family leave gets slashed as Democrats try to reach consensus on spending plan

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has said she plans to fight for the inclusion of paid family leave in Democrats' spending bill.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has said she plans to fight for the inclusion of paid family leave in Democrats' spending bill.

America is an outlier when it comes to paid family leave — a matter many Democrats had hoped to fix with President Biden's sweeping domestic spending plan.

But the latest framework — which was cut down from its original size to satisfy centrists and which Biden unveiled Thursday — drops paid leave.

"That is one of my biggest points of dissatisfaction, and it is discouraging," Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia told NPR.

The talks had initially called for 12 weeks of paid family leave, which includes leave for new parents and elder care. That was whittled down to four and finally down to none.

The United States is one of a handful of countries, and the only wealthy nation, without a national paid leave policy.

Many Democrats said Thursday that they still hope to add provisions to the president's framework.

That echoes a Wednesday statement from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who has vowed to continue to fight for paid family leave until the very end.

"Until the bill is printed, I will continue working to include paid leave in the Build Back Better plan," she said in the statement.

The Biden administration has said paid leave would make the U.S. more competitive in the global market. Women are often the hardest hit by restrictive or nonexistent paid leave policies.

"You cannot be competitive if women can't productively engage in the workforce because they don't have access to child care or care for their elderly loved ones," Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said in an interview with NPR last month. "We can't compete globally if we're the only industrialized nation without paid family leave, which severely underpins our workers' productivity."

Disagreements over the price tag

Democrats largely seemed to agree that family leave provisions should be in the massive spending package.

But Democrats plan to push the measure through the Senate using a process called reconciliation, so there needs to be complete unanimity within a party's caucus that includes two major holdouts on the overall size and scope of the bill — Sens. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

Manchin has been quite vocal about what he wants and what he doesn't want in the spending measure. The conservative Democrat — who this month made waves for saying he had offered to switch parties if he had become a "problem" to Democrats — had balked at the plan's size, which initially rang in at $3.5 trillion.

A Sinema spokesman released a statement earlier this month saying she "does not negotiate policy details through the press," but she previously said that she, like Manchin, would not support a package as pricey as the original $3.5 trillion proposal.

That led Democrats to have to narrow the bill down — including slashing paid leave.

Despite his discouragement that the leave policy has been dropped, Kaine and others pointed to other provisions in the bill, including an extended child tax credit and universal prekindergarten, as victories.

"What we'll say to folks who care deeply about the issue, and I do too, is that it's disappointing and we got more work to do," he said. "But the combination of pro-family and pro-child issues is so strong here that it'll give us momentum on the other things. And there's a lot of good in this bill."

Biden, for whom the historic measure would represent a major win for his young presidency, spoke optimistically about what has been achieved thus far.

"We spent hours and hours and hours over months and months working on this," Biden said in remarks made before leaving for the G-20 and the U.N. climate summit. "No one got everything they wanted, including me. But that's what compromise is. That's consensus. And that's what I ran on."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.