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Family-Leave Bill Clears Congress, Presidential Veto Expected

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WASHINGTON--The House last week approved a bill that would require some employers to grant workers unpaid leave to care for newborn children or ill family members, but not by enough votes to overcome an expected Presidential veto.

The bill was passed by a vote of 241 to 161, drawing support from 37 Republicans and opposition from 42 Democrats. President Bush vetoed a similar measure in 1990 and has threatened another veto this time.

In urging their colleagues and President Bush to support the bill, proponents frequently invoked the "family values'' theme that has been a touchstone in the Presidential campaign and dominated the Republican convention.

"This bill will do more to strengthen the institution of the family than any other legislation ever passed by the United States Congress,'' said Rep. William L. Clay, D-Mo., the bill's chief House sponsor.

"No legislation we will consider this year focuses as intensely and clearly on family values as does this legislation,'' added the Speaker of the House, Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash.

Republican opponents of the measure, however, accused Democrats of bringing it to a vote at this point in the campaign solely to embarrass Republicans. The House and the Senate initially approved slightly different versions of the measure in the fall of 1991, but did not go to conference until last month. The Senate also passed the conference agreement last month by voice vote. (See Education Week, Sept. 9, 1992.)

"This is election-year politics pure and simple,'' said Rep. Robert H. Michel of Illinois, the House Republican leader. "If [this legislation] was so important, why was it held in legislative limbo for almost a year?''

Bill's Provisions

The "family and medical leave act'' would require firms with more than 50 employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave a year, with continued health insurance, for the birth or adoption of a child or the serious illness of the employee or an immediate family member. Employees would have to have worked for at least 12 months and to have worked 1,250 hours, or 25 hours a week, during that period. The bill includes provisions giving school districts leeway to set conditions on teachers' leave to avoid classroom disruptions.

In the debate on the House floor, supporters frequently noted that most other industrialized countries have family-leave policies, and they argued that workers should not be forced to choose between tending to a newborn or a seriously ill parent and keeping their jobs.

But many of the bill's opponents argued that family leave, along with other employee benefits, should be negotiated between employers and employees and not mandated by the federal government. They also said the bill could force businesses to cut salaries or other benefits in order to compensate for the mandated leave.

A White House official who spoke with reporters on condition of anonymity during the debate also criticized the Democrats' timing and suggested that the Bush Administration is interested in alternatives such as offering tax incentives to small businesses to offer family leave.

But Mr. Clay and others said they had tried unsuccessfully to persuade the White House to enter negotiations with Republicans who favor the measure, including Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., and Rep. Henry J. Hyde, R-Ill.

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