More time off?! (iStock)

Just a few weeks ago, the Healthy Families Act — which would allow employees to earn up to seven days of paid sick leave — seemed like just another White House proposal doomed to die in the newly Republican Senate. But this afternoon, it gained a surprise vote of confidence: 61 senators voted for an amendment to the budget that would do essentially the same thing.

That doesn't mean it will become law. Budget resolutions are not binding, so it's a largely symbolic move. But it's important: If family-friendly policies gain enough bipartisan support, they could end up substantially improving conditions for millions of workers who've long gone without any paid time off at all. The Healthy Families Act would be the first significant federal expansion of leave policies since the Family and Medical Leave Act passed in 1993, allowing workers to take up to 12 weeks unpaid time off for medical reasons without losing their jobs.

The measure's backers weren't expecting to land 61 votes, until Sens. Pat Toomey (R-Penn.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) switched their votes to yes. Although Wisconsin is among several states to have banned local jurisdictions from enacting their own paid sick leave laws, there's been more support in Pennsylvania, with Philadelphia recently mandating that employers allow workers to accrue one hour paid leave for every 40 worked.

(A spokeswoman for Toomey said that he initially mis-read the amendment, and voted yes when he realized that it was consistent with the Working Families Flexibility Act, a business-backed measure that would allow employees to exchange overtime for up to four weeks of paid time off.)

Nationwide, paid sick leave is tremendously popular, with large majorities of voters in both parties in favor. The percentage of private sector workers who have access to paid leave has increased since the early 1990s, with the passage of several state laws that require it. But U.S. employers' paid leave policies — both sick days and parental time off — still lag far behind those in other developed countries. Microsoft's announcement this morning that it would require its suppliers to offer 15 days of paid leave made it the exception to the rule. And other recent measures that would help expand it, like Sen. Kristin Gillibrand's Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, have gone nowhere.

Besides Toomey and Johnson, 12 other Republicans voted for the Healthy Families Act budget amendment: Lamar Alexander (R-Tex.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and John Thune (R-S.D.).

An aide for Sen. Patty Murray, who introduced the paid sick leave language as a budget amendment, says she'll push to get the Healthy Families Act a full floor vote as soon as possible.