A group of conservatives is making a new push to build momentum for creating a paid family leave program.
The effort has run into headwinds before, but supporters are coalescing around a new plan and are optimistic about finally breaking the deadlock.
A Senate panel is holding a hearing Wednesday on the topic, where Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a supporter, is slated to testify. And Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is expected to introduce legislation this week on the issue.
“We need to find a conservative solution to provide paid family leave in a fiscally responsible way,” Rubio said in a video touting the plan.
Ernst, Rubio and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) have been supportive of a proposal that the conservative Independent Women’s Forum (IWF) released earlier this year that would allow people to get paid parental leave by collecting early Social Security benefits. In exchange they would defer collecting benefits for a short time when they retire in an effort to offset the cost.
Under IWF’s proposal, new parents would be able to get up to 12 weeks of paid leave that for an average wage earner would amount to about 45 percent of their wages.
The idea of a federal paid family leave program has long been a priority for Democrats, with conservatives raising concerns about creating a costly, large government program.
But lately there has been growing interest on the right to address the issue and develop a conservative approach.
The Republican tax law signed last year created tax credits for employers who offer paid leave, and some GOP lawmakers are interested in building on that effort.
Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and adviser, is viewed as key to Republicans’ paid family leave efforts. She has met with lawmakers on the topic and championed a six-week parental leave program linked to unemployment insurance, a proposal that President Trump backed with $25 billion in his 2018 budget proposal and $19 billion in his 2019 budget proposal.
One lawmaker Trump has discussed paid family leave with is Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee subcommittee holding Wednesday’s hearing. It’s the first hearing specifically on paid leave before the Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over the issue.
Cassidy said he’s keeping an open mind.
The ideas in IWF’s proposal are expected to be a key part of Ernst’s testimony and Rubio’s forthcoming bill.
“I think this is an important moment and an important conversation for people to have,” said IWF President Carrie Lukas.
Lukas said that when IWF discussed their proposal with Ivanka Trump and her team, they didn’t endorse it outright. But Lukas said they “were very intrigued, wanted to hear more, supportive of the conversation.”
But the idea of collecting early Social Security benefits as paid leave faces criticism from groups across the political spectrum. And a Democratic senator is offering her own paid leave proposal, which could make it harder for Republicans to draw support across the aisle.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) at the hearing is expected to discuss her own bill that would create a paid family and medical leave program financed through higher payroll taxes. Her bill would cover up to two-thirds of wages for 12 weeks.
Gillibrand’s office said the senator will urge lawmakers to reject the conservative proposal as harmful to Social Security and women and low-income workers.
But experts have touted similarities between the proposals. Gillibrand’s bill would create a paid family leave office within the Social Security Administration, but not force people to defer collecting benefits. That has supporters hopeful both parties can eventually find common ground.
Some experts see similarities between the IWF and Gillibrand proposals. Gillibrand’s bill would create a paid family leave office within the Social Security Administration, though it would not involve people collecting retirement benefits early.
That has supporters of paid family leave hopeful both parties can find common ground.
“What I find absolutely surprising is that Republicans and Democrats actually seem to be coming together a lot more closely on policy proposals,” said Adrienne Schweer, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center task force on paid family leave.
But there are still significant differences between the approach backed by conservatives and Gillibrand’s bill.
Democrats and some paid leave advocacy groups argue that IWF’s proposal would not help enough people, since it focuses specifically on parental leave and wouldn’t cover taking time off to care for a sick relative.
They’re also concerned that people would have to get a reduction in their Social Security retirement benefits to receive paid leave.
“I like it that [Republicans] want to do something bipartisanly on paid family leave. I’m always suspicious when they use Social Security because in the end, always, they come back to wanting to privatize Social Security, raising the retirement age, cutting the benefits,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the top Democrat on the subpanel holding the hearing, told reporters Tuesday.
Brown’s office said that the senator supports expanding Social Security to provide paid leave, but opposes a proposal that would cause retirees to face benefit cuts.
Vicki Shabo, vice president for workplace policies and strategies with the National Partnership for Women & Families, who will be testifying at Wednesday’s hearing, said she prefers the Gillibrand bill to the IWF proposal.
“The Gillibrand approach provides a comprehensive, sustainable, affordable program,” she said, while the conservative proposal “would force a false trade-off between retirement security and paid leave.”
Some right-leaning groups, such as the Mercatus Center and the American Action Forum (AAF), have also criticized the idea of paid leave that takes the form of early Social Security benefits, arguing that it would hasten the insolvency of the financially troubled program. That’s because people who collect the paid leave benefits in the short run won’t retire until after 2034, when the Social Security trust funds are expected to be exhausted.
Adding a paid leave benefit to Social Security without broader Social Security reforms would “worsen the outlook,” said AAF’s Ben Gitis. AAF projects that under IWF’s proposal, the exhaustion date would move up by about six months.
But supporters of the Social Security parental benefit idea are pushing back on their critics.
“Will have to work hard this week to lay out facts about #PaidFamilyLeave plan,” Rubio tweeted Monday.
He noted that the plan would be “optional” and that no one would lose their Social Security benefits — “This is just an option to take some of it early for paid leave.”
Lukas said that IWF is focusing initially on new parents because “these are often the hardest cases,” but the program could be expanded.
Andrew Biggs, a resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute who is testifying at the hearing, said that Social Security is a huge program compared to the size of the proposed paid leave benefit.
“This is just a rounding error when it comes to solvency issues,” he said.
Some analysts say that using Social Security to house the new benefit makes sense, because it doesn’t require a big new bureaucracy.
“If we have new needs, piggybacking on an existing program where we already have the formula figured out, we already have the delivery mechanism, we already have the constraints in place makes sense,” said Marc Goldwein, senior policy director for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a budget watchdog.
Advocates for a family leave program have high hopes for Wednesday’s hearing.
“Looking forward to Wednesday’s bipartisan Senate hearing hosted by Senator @BillCassidy on Paid Family Leave,” Ivanka Trump tweeted this week.
“We encourage our lawmakers to come together and begin to chart a path forward for a long-overdue national #PFL plan that can secure the votes to be signed into law!”