• The US is one of the only developed countries in the world without a national paid family leave program.
  • Long supported by Democrats, President Trump has also called for paid family leave in his last two State of the Union Addresses.
  • Republican Senator Joni Ernst says she is in the early stages of developing a conservative paid family leave bill with her GOP colleagues.

The United States is one of the only developed countries in the world without a national paid family leave program. This fact has long been a talking point for lawmakers and activists on the left pushing for a national paid family leave policy, but after President Donald Trump voiced his support for such a program in his State of the Union Address for the second year in a row, the idea is gaining traction among Republicans as well.

“I am also proud to be the first president to include in my budget a plan for nationwide paid family leave, so that every new parent has the chance to bond with their newborn child,” Trump said in his State of the Union address earlier this month. The president’s budget proposal for FY 2019 called for six weeks of paid family leave to new mothers and fathers. While scant on details, the White House clarified this meant providing a “base” from which states would have the authority to create paid family leave programs tailored to their workforce and economies.

Public support for paid family leave is strong — at least at a general level. A Cato poll last December found that 74 percent of Americans support “establishing a new government program to provide 12 weeks of paid leave to workers after the birth, or adoption, of a child — or to deal with their own or a family member’s serious illness.” That figure dropped significantly, however, when the poll asked about costs. Fifty four percent of respondents continued to support paid family leave if it cost them an additional $200 in taxes each year, and only 43 percent supported the policy if it would cost them an extra $1,200.

When the poll provided more context for the cost of such a program, support dropped even further. Only 40 percent of Americans supported government paid family leave if it added to the national deficit, and only 36 percent supported it if it meant that families that didn’t use the program still had to pay higher taxes to provide benefits to others.

As a party traditionally adverse to raising taxes and expanding the scope of the federal government, national paid family leave would be a heavy lift for the GOP. A number of Republican lawmakers have begun speaking up about the issue over the past year, but there is not a clear consensus in conservative circles about whether such a program is even necessary.

A report last month from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, noted that the US already has the most extensive system of private and state-based paid leave programs, and that the availability of paid family leave is already growing as it is.

“As more workers desire paid leave, more employers are offering it,” Rachel Greszler, Research Fellow in Economics, Budget and Entitlements, wrote in the report. “Over the past three years, more than 100 large, name-brand companies announced new or expanded paid family leave programs, and the largest 20 employers in the U.S. all provide paid family leave. Now is not the time to stifle this growth or to crowd out existing policies with a federal paid leave program.” Greszler cited a 2017 Pew study that found 63 percent of Americans who took time off from work for parental, family, or medical reasons received all or part of their regular pay, while only 36 percent received no pay.

“The issue of paid leave from a conservative standpoint is competing values,” American Action Forum Director of Labor Market Policy Ben Gitis told the Washington Examiner on Tuesday. “It’s pro-work, it’s pro-family, but on the other hand would be a new government program. It would require new spending and it impacts the private sector and some form of private market intervention, which conservatives aren’t too often excited about.”

That said, Trump’s public support could give Republicans a measure of political cover for taking action on the issue, and some believe they’ve found a conservative path to making paid family leave possible. Last year GOP Sen. Marco Rubio, Fla., proposed the Economic Security for New Parents Act, which would allow new parents to tap into their Social Security benefits early in exchange for a delayed retirement.

This year, Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst is poised to take up the mantel on the issue, telling the press on Thursday that she is working with her male GOP colleagues on a conservative bill that would allow new parents to take paid time off work. On Wednesday Ernst met with Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.), and Ivanka Trump, first daughter and senior White House adviser (who has been an outspoken advocate for paid family leave), to discuss next steps.

“I don’t want to give any false hopes, because this will be a heavy lift,” Ernst told the press. “But I think it’s one that we all think is very important. We have to find the right path going forward.”

The path forward is certain to be complicated given that any paid family leave bill must pass both the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House. Congressional Democrats’ major proposal addressing the issue, the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, was reintroduced in both the House and Senate on Tuesday by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), respectively. The bill would provide 12 weeks of leave for new parents as well as workers who take time off due to serious health issues or to care for a sick family member. Workers would be paid 66 percent of their typical monthly earnings (up to a certain limit). The program would be funded by employers and employees through a payroll tax of 0.2 percent.

The Democrat tax-funded proposal stands in stark contrast to Rubio’s budget-neutral plan, and it illustrates the different starting points each party brings to the issue. In a polarized political climate, some analysts believe these policy differences will prove too much to overcome even if both sides want to address the issue.

“If the State of the Union address really articulated the policy stances of the administration, we would be talking about Trump’s triangulation,” National Review’s Jim Geraghty wrote after the address. “On paper, the Trump administration and Congressional Democrats could find common ground and compromise on any of those policy priorities. But the Democrats have spent the last three years publicly insisting that Trump is Beelzebub. You can’t go to your constituents and say, ‘Hey, I worked out a great compromise on highway funding with that guy I told you was Evil Personified.’”

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