The Family Leave Bill Could Stick This Time

For six years, the Family & Medical Leave Act has starred in a Capitol Hill drama called The Bill That Wouldn't Die. The legislation has suffered many last-minute defeats only to come back stronger than ever in the next session. This year, the measure may finally make it, even though President Bush is threatening a veto.

If supporters can build up enough momentum, the family-leave bill could snap Bush's string of 22 straight vetoes sustained. On Oct. 2, the Senate approved a version by a 65-32 tally, and Democratic leaders say they have in reserve the two votes they would need to override Bush. The House will take up the legislation shortly.

As passed by the Senate, the bill would require employers with more than 50 workers to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child or the illness of a family member. Small-business owners insist that such "mandated benefits" would be a crushing burden on their companies. Bush is siding with them against a coalition of women's groups, unions, and churches.

'GOOD ISSUE.' But some Republicans fear that the White House is putting them on the wrong side of a popular idea. "This is a good issue," says the Brookings Institution's Thomas E. Mann. "Democrats can talk about how George Bush sides with business and against working men and women."

Family-leave fans hope that the GOP is tired of taking a beating for supporting the White House on such unpopular stands as opposing extended jobless benefits and backing favorable trade treatment for China. Representative Marge Roukema (R-N. J.), a co-sponsor of the bill, has been pressing Bush--so far without success--to soften his opposition. "I don't know anything that is more Republican than helping hardworking families help themselves," she says.

Despite such attitudes, it will still be a challenge to get a two-thirds majority for the legislation in the House. After Bush vetoed last year's edition of the bill, the House fell 54 votes short of the total needed to override.

VETO-PROOF? Changes in the legislation itself could make it possible for family leave to prevail this year. The key is a Senate compromise drafted by Republican Christopher S. Bond of Missouri. He won acceptance of an exemption for the most critical employees and part-timers who work fewer than 25 hours a week. It also would let employers recoup health-insurance premiums from employees who don't return to work after their leaves. "This compromise should be enough to get the bill as close to veto-proof in the House as it is in the Senate," says Donna Lenhoff of the Women's Legal Defense Fund.

Business is working equally hard to make an expected veto stick. Most large corporations already provide unpaid leave for new parents or other emergencies and don't have strong feelings about the bill. Smaller companies, however, think it would be onerous to hold a job open while an employee takes an extended leave, even if unpaid. They also fear that family leave is merely the first in a string of government demands that they provide employees with expensive benefits--with the ultimate goal being paid health insurance for all workers.

Both sides are gearing up for a major battle. They are unleashing their grass-roots legions on the Hill--from local merchants on one side to union members on the other. "We are not taking one vote for granted," says opponent Mary Tavenner, a lobbyist for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors. That's a sound strategy as opponents face the possibility that the unsinkable bill may finally become law.

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