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Congress Approves, Clinton Signs Bill Requiring Firms To Grant Family Leave

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WASHINGTON--President Clinton last Friday signed into law a measure that will require large firms to grant workers unpaid leave for family emergencies.

The measure was the first passed by the 103rd Congress, and its adoption broke a seven-year deadlock on the issue of family leave. Two similar measures had been vetoed by President Bush.

Supporters of the bill had been concerned that it might be held up by Senate Republicans seeking to retain the ban on homosexuals in the military, but a proposed G.O.P. amendment to the bill on that issue was defeated handily. The family-leave bill had been put on a fast track by Democratic leaders hoping to show that they could ease legislative "gridlock'' now that their party controls both Congress and the White House.

The House passed the Family and Medical Leave Act by 265 to 163 last Wednesday after defeating several G.O.P. attempts to water it down.

The Senate began debating the measure early in the week, also turning back several attempts to weaken it. But its passage was temporarily impeded by behind-the-scenes maneuvering over moves to attach an amendment to codify the current ban against homosexuals in the military.

Some Republicans opposed to President Clinton's plan to phase out the ban had threatened to hold up the leave bill to force a confrontation on the issue.

Late in the week, the Senate minority leader, Bob Dole of Kansas, introduced an amendment that would have kept the current policy in effect and required that the President submit to the Congress for approval any change in the policy. The Congress would have had to review, hold hearings, and vote on any change.

A counterproposal by the Senate majority leader, George J. Mitchell of Maine, called only for Congressional hearings and a comprehensive review of the basis for the current policy by the Defense Department by July.

The Democrats' proposal prevailed, clearing the way for a 71-to-27 Senate vote in favor of the family-leave bill.

Weakening Moves Fail

Supporters argued that the bill would set minimal standards to help workers balance work and family concerns, while opponents maintained it would force businesses to drop other benefits or cut back their workforces.

The bill was supported by education and child-advocacy groups but opposed by some business groups. (See Education Week, Feb. 3, 1993.)

The new law will require firms with more than 50 workers to grant workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave a year, with continued health coverage and job protection, to care for newborn or newly adopted children, recover from a serious illness, or care for a seriously ill child, spouse, or parent.

Both chambers defeated several attempts to make the measure less onerous to businesses.

The House defeated an amendment that would have exempted from the bill's requirements firms that offer a "cafeteria style'' benefit plan with a comparable leave provision as one option to choose from.

It also rejected one that would have given firms more leeway to exempt "key employees'' from coverage.

The Senate turned down an amendment offered by Sen. Larry E. Craig, R-Idaho, that would have replaced the mandate with tax incentives to firms that offer family and medical leave. It also rejected one by Senator Dole that would have made compliance optional until the government could either certify the mandate would put no extra costs on businesses or provide federal aid to offset them.

Mr. Dole and other critics repeatedly cast the bill as one that, despite its laudable goals, would burden firms with an "unfunded mandate.''

But Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., the bill's chief sponsor, countered by citing reports from companies with leave policies of increased productivity and improved morale.

Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said the measure marked a shift toward improving the "safety net'' for working families rather than "trying to prevent others from ripping [it] to shreds.''

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