Manchin faces pressure from Gillibrand, other colleagues on paid family leave

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) is facing mounting pressure from colleagues to back a federal paid family and medical leave plan backed by Democrats as the party seeks to finish work on a sprawling $2 trillion social spending package.

Manchin has pushed back in recent months against efforts by his colleagues to advance the proposal for a universal paid leave program in a Democratic-only bill his party aims to pass through Congress without GOP support, insisting it should be done on a bipartisan basis. 

But a number of Democrats, particularly those who have struggled to find support for similar proposals and don’t want to miss this opportunity, aren’t giving up and are putting the pressure on.

“My message to my colleague is if you ever want to meet the needs of your lowest income workers and your middle income workers, who are likely never to work at a fancy company that can afford paid leave, this is your one shot to deliver for them,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a longtime paid leave advocate, said at a press conference on Thursday.

Under the current plan being discussed by Democrats, four weeks of paid family and medical leave would be provided to full-time and part-time workers in both the private and public sector. The program would be administered by the Social Security Administration and operate on a sliding income scale under a formula that Democrats say would allow lower-earning workers to keep a larger share of their wages.

Advocacy groups have praised the proposed program, saying it could be transformative for millions of American workers who don’t have access to paid family leave or sick leave benefits.

Democrats had previously wanted to provide up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave in their massive bill, but it was scaled down to four weeks and then later nixed from the plan entirely after Manchin’s opposition to the measure. House Democrats added it back into the plan, however, in early November following an uproar from advocates.

The party hopes to pass the bill in Congress using a procedure known as budget reconciliation, which will allow them to bypass a likely GOP filibuster in the evenly split Senate. But that means Democrats would need the support of all of their members in the upper chamber to approve the measure, giving Manchin significant leverage over the shaping of the bill.

Gillibrand, who has had multiple conversations with Manchin about the party’s paid leave proposal over the past few weeks, has been seen by colleagues as the leader in spearheading efforts in the upper chamber to sway the West Virginia Democrat.

“He really likes paid leave. He likes paid leave as an earned benefit. He likes it as a 12-week program that’s universal. He likes it as social insurance and just like Social Security, he likes that framework,” she said.

“But what I know and what I need him to know is that Republicans don’t share that value. They don’t actually support a universal program and they don’t support an earned benefit. And I’ve asked each one of them who’s ever expressed interest in paid leave,” she said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, paid family leave was accessible for less than a quarter of civilian workers in March 2021. Data reviewed by the agency in March 2020 found 78 percent of civilian workers had access to paid sick leave benefits.  

The UCLA Fielding School of Public Health also confirmed to The Hill on Thursday that the United States is one of only 7 countries without national paid maternal leave. The others are the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea and Tonga.

Other Democratic senators told The Hill they’ve also spoken to Manchin on the matter.

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) said on Thursday that he recently met with Manchin to pitch the senator on the bill. Tester said Democrats are still hopeful for the policy’s inclusion in the package.

“I just talked to him about the fact that we need it,” Tester told The Hill.

But it’s not clear whether Manchin, who has expressed concerns about the size of the overall spending package for months, has entirely warmed up to the multibillion-dollar proposal. 

Pressed by The Hill about the matter last week, Manchin said lawmakers are still in negotiations.

“I’ve talked to everybody. That’s all I can tell you. We’re still negotiating,” he said.

Republicans who have been behind alternative paid leave proposals have expressed interest in working with Manchin on legislation tackling paid leave. But many aren’t on board with how the program is modeled in the Democratic bill.

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) told The Hill on Thursday that she would like to work with Manchin on a measure addressing the matter. But she added the paid leave structure featured in a 2019 bill she introduced was the “kind of the model” she’d liked to do. 

The bill Ernst refers to offers what she, along with Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), touted at the time as a “budget neutral” plan parents can opt into that would allow them to receive up to three months of paid leave “by giving them the option to postpone activating their Social Security benefits.”

Another bipartisan parental leave plan introduced the same year by Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) would have allowed new parents “to advance $5,000 from their Child Tax Credit upon the birth or adoption of a child,” according to Sinema’s office. But, in exchange for the benefit, the office said “parents would reduce their yearly Child Tax Credit by $500 over each of the following 10 years.”

Those policies have received mixed reviews from advocacy groups.

“We shouldn’t make people choose and gamble between what they might need now and later,” said Michelle McGrain, the director of congressional relations for economic justice at the National Partnership for Women & Families. 

“We should be able to do both. So, we should have a strong, comprehensive universal paid family and medical leave program, we should have a strong Child Tax Credit Program, and we shouldn’t make parents choose between their needs now and what they think we might need later,” she told The Hill. 

Tags Bill Cassidy Build Back Better Joe Manchin Jon Tester Joni Ernst Kirsten Gillibrand Kyrsten Sinema Mike Lee Paid Family Leave

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