The Washington Post

GOP Senators go on offense on women’s issues

Faced with a well-known and stubborn gender gap and a Democratically-controlled Senate where several bills aimed at women have been introduced and voted on over the last several months, Republicans are going on the offense on several issues that are likely to resonate with women voters. On Wednesday, Sen. Deb. Fischer (R-Neb.) is set to introduce a family leave bill that would give tax breaks to employers who voluntarily offer paid leave to their employers.

Fischer’s bill, called the Strong Families Act and co-sponsored by Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), would offer employees a 25 percent refundable tax credit for each hour of paid leave offered to workers. The Nebraska senator is quietly emerging as the face of Republican efforts to counteract Democrats’ “war on women” rhetoric — language that has been effective in several campaign cycles.

Rather than possibly cede ground to Democrats by simply blocking bills, Republicans are increasingly adopting a get-caught-trying strategy that acknowledges that some new policies are needed to address some of the challenges working women face in juggling careers and family life.

Democrats introduced a bill in late 2013 that would provide up to 12 weeks a year in paid leave for certain workers at two-thirds their salary, a measure estimated to cost more than $20 billion a year.

Fischer said her bill, which would require employers to offer four weeks of paid leave to be eligible for tax credits, provides a “meaningful incentive structure,” for employers to provide paid leave for hourly employees who are often unable to afford taking unpaid leave.

“With more than half of women working as primary breadwinners, workplace flexibility has become a necessity for 21st century families. It’s not just children who require personal care and attention, it’s also aging parents,” Fischer said in an e-mailed statement. “This hourly paid leave proposal provides families with the flexibility to take paid time to meet family medical and caregiving obligations. Importantly, our bipartisan plan is also a balanced measure that respects employers’ costs of doing business with employee needs.”

Fischer’s move echoes a strategy that the four Republican women in the Senate adopted in April when they jointly offered amendments to the Democrats’ equal pay bill, a measure that was ultimately filibustered by the GOP but provided election year talking points for Democrats.

Fischer is also out front in the GOP’s efforts to reframe the debate around the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision, a ruling that has galvanized progressive women’s groups and prompted Senate Democrats to introduce legislation that would reverse the June decision. Lawmakers are expected to vote on the Democratic bill called the Not My Boss’s Business Act on Wednesday, but the measure is unlikely to garner any GOP votes and appears destined to fail.

For their part, Fischer and other Republicans, including Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), have introduced competing legislation called the Preserving Religious Freedom and a Woman’s Access to Contraception Act, which aims to make clear that Republicans don’t support limiting women’s access to contraception.

“It is entirely possible to both stand tall for the principle of religious freedom and to support safe access to birth control — the two are not mutually exclusive,” said Fischer in a statement. “Rather than seeking to divide Americans for political gain, this straightforward proposal brings people together around common-sense ideas millions of Americans already support.”

Fischer and Ayotte penned an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, titled “The Hobby Lobby Decision and Its Distortions,” that hammers Democrats and progressives for the #NotMyBoss’sBusiness campaign, “which falsely suggests that under the ruling employers can deny their employees access to birth control,” the senators write.

“In the days since the Supreme Court’s June 30 Burwell v. Hobby Lobby decision, we have been troubled by those who seem eager to misrepresent both the facts of the case and the impact of its ruling on women — all to divide Americans and score political points in a tough election year,” Fischer and Ayotte wrote in the piece.

Republicans, who in the past have been gaffe-prone and were often caught flat-footed when discussing issues around women’s health, are mounting a concerted effort to reverse their fortunes with women voters, with women like Fischer and Ayotte carrying the GOP message and balancing the 16-member women’s caucus on the Democratic side.

Fischer, a heartland conservative, also introduced a microfinance bill last month, aimed at increasing access to capital for those in the lower income bracket who are interested in starting a business, a move that underscores GOP efforts to address poverty and income mobility.

“She is an interesting and exciting voice for women in the Senate. She is somebody who we don’t know a lot about, but she represents a different perspective because she isn’t an East Coast liberal or moderate, and she is a helpful addition to the mix,”said Katie Packer Gage, of Burning Glass Consulting. “What we’ve seen this year is a much more offensive approach, with Republicans saying we aren’t going to let Democrats define who we are when it comes to women. What Fischer is doing … will go a way in changing the frame of the debate.”

Nia-Malika Henderson is a political reporter for The Fix.

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