The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats brace for cuts to paid leave program as they whittle down Biden economic package

Lawmakers may end up authorizing only four weeks of benefits, far less than the 12 weeks that many initially sought.

President Biden blocks the sun with his hand as he boards Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on Wednesday. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

When President Biden unveiled his political blueprint to aid workers and families this spring, he took special care to emphasize one of its key components: a proposal to provide 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for most Americans.

But six months later Democrats are discussing significant cuts to that approach — a reflection of the challenge they now face in whittling their once-vast spending ambitions down to size.

For Democrats, the fate of their plans to expand wide swaths of the federal safety net hangs in the balance this week as they map out the future of Biden’s economic agenda. Once envisioned as a $3.5 trillion package to overhaul health care, education, climate and tax laws, Democrats instead have found themselves racing to dial it back — perhaps by as much as half — to satisfy spending-weary moderate lawmakers among their ranks.

The deep cuts are bound to affect practically every program, even those that are popular across Democrats’ warring factions or have not been specifically targeted by the Senate’s two centrist holdouts, Sens. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.). That includes some of Biden’s more popular initiatives, including his proposal to provide millions of Americans with paid-leave benefits if they are ill, caring for a loved one or tending to a new child.

In private meetings with Democrats on Capitol Hill over the past week, including one late Wednesday, White House officials have put forward a cost-cutting alternative. They pitched a new, roughly $100 billion plan that would offer four weeks of paid parental, family and sick leave beginning in 2024, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the conversations.

The program would be smaller in size and shorter in duration than what House Democrats unveiled earlier this year, and it would not be authorized on a permanent basis, these people said, though they cautioned that the details are subject to rapidly changing talks and could still evolve.

The idea has provoked mixed reactions among Democrats. On one hand, some lawmakers this week have reacted angrily at the mere prospect they could cut down an initiative that many say is essential in the aftermath of a pandemic that had its greatest effects on women and caregivers.

“It’s not in stone,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) on Thursday. “That’s still being hotly, hotly debated.”

At the same time, however, Democrats have acknowledged the current political reality: A scaled-back, four-week program is still a significant investment that’s far better than adopting nothing at all. Still, some lawmakers and advocates in recent days have told the White House that they plan to continue pushing for additional spending, illustrating that the fight might not be finished.

“To someone who doesn’t have a day of paid leave, four weeks could still be meaningful to them,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, the director of Paid Leave for All, an advocacy group. “Our hope had always been that the White House followed what they committed to in the American Families Plan, which was reaching 12 weeks over a period of time.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

The discussions over paid leave came as Democrats on Thursday forged ahead in negotiating the whole of their tax-and-spending package, with the hope that they could still reach a deal on the long-stalled legislation as soon as this week. In doing so, they face a difficult task to unite liberal lawmakers, who are eager to spend, with centrists including Manchin and Sinema, who instead are pushing for a smaller package.

The issues still to resolve are significant, ranging from the total size of the package to the potential tax increases that could finance it. But the scope of the work still on the horizon did not deter Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who sounded a fresh note of optimism Thursday that the party could overcome its own internal divisions and reach an “agreement” as soon as this week.

Manchin took a less rosy view, later telling reporters that it is “pretty hard to make final decisions” in the absence of more legislative details. Asked if it could take longer than Friday to broker a compromise, he eventually replied: “This is not going to happen any time soon.” Sinema, meanwhile, once again ignored reporters’ questions about the package she has endeavored to change.

Amid the congressional wrangling, Biden on Thursday prepared to hit the road again to sell his vision to voters. He planned to stop in Baltimore for a town hall before heading to Newark next week. His first appearance in the national tour, a speech delivered Wednesday in Scranton, Pa., saw the president stress the need for “transformative” investments in the economy.

President Biden fielded questions at a televised town hall on Oct. 21, where he was asked about his domestic agenda, paid leave proposal, and vaccine mandates. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

For many Democrats, those new spending initiatives include a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reinvigorate social safety-net programs that help workers and families, especially those at lower incomes. Democrats have put forward plans to offer enhanced tax credits to parents, for example, along with a bevy of efforts that could help them find and pay for child care.

Many of these elements have remained intact as negotiations continue, even though Democrats have been forced to grapple with potentially uncomfortable cuts in the process — including only a one-year extension to child tax credits that lawmakers initially hoped to make permanent. The concessions made to Manchin and Sinema continued to provoke angst among some Democrats on Thursday, who pledged to keep fighting for ambitious new spending.

“It’s a big mistake — a one-year extension is a big mistake,” said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), who promised to push more broadly for changes to the still-forming bill. “What I will do is to continue to pressure for a new framework that’s more enduring for children and for families.”

Democrats have put similar weight in paid leave, arguing the United States is one of the worst in the world at providing such robust, consistent benefits to its workers. But that proposal has faced the same fiscal head winds, opening new rifts among party lawmakers this week.

Under Biden’s original American Families Plan, unveiled in April, the government would have created a national leave program offering partial wage replacement for a wide array of uses, including caring for new children, helping sick loved ones, dealing with a spouse’s military deployment and grieving the death of a family member. The president proposed phasing in the benefits so that Americans would have 12 weeks of leave in year 10 of the program. The benefits would have replaced the patchwork system currently in place, where protections vary by employer and state.

House Democrats, led by Rep. Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.), the chairman of the tax-focused Ways and Means Committee, ultimately tweaked the details as they worked on their own iteration, a roughly $500 billion proposal to provide 12 weeks of paid leave. But that approach quickly appeared in jeopardy as one of the more expensive components of a broader $3.5 trillion economic package that Manchin and Sinema since then have sought to cut.

Some Senate Democrats in recent days felt that they would have to slash that amount by at least half, perhaps limiting how much they could offer in terms of the size and duration of benefits, the kinds of leave covered or the years that the program might be operational. Others feared that the entire paid leave program could be removed from the final bill after Biden began discussing it less frequently in public.

By Tuesday, the concerns about cuts prompted more than 100 House Democrats to write the president directly, describing paid leave as a “top priority” for Democrats “and the workers we represent.”

“Only 23 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave, and the majority of workers with access to unpaid leave can’t afford to take it. This affects both economic and family outcomes,” they wrote, adding that Americans “shouldn’t be forced to wait decades more for important and necessary family supports.”

The cuts proposed by the White House in meetings this week proved to be a bit steeper than some Democrats anticipated. Many lawmakers still pledged to keep fighting to restore money to the program.

“Chairman Neal will continue to push for more funding to improve the policy as it stands now in negotiations,” a spokesman for the congressman said Thursday.

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