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Post Roe, some in GOP wage uphill battle to offer families more support

A conservative push to expand federal benefits as abortion access dwindles is running into the usual buzzsaw of GOP opposition to social spending.

Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah) and some other Republicans are trying to push their party to support more generous federal funding for new parents after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

As the country processed the fall of Roe v. Wade, a few dozen GOP congressional staffers crammed into the second floor of the Monocle, a steak and seafood restaurant a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Over a buffet lunch, they listened to Samuel Hammond, an outside adviser to Sen. Mitt Romney, argue that Republicans have a heightened obligation to expand financial support for families now that abortion rights are no longer guaranteed nationwide.

Hammond, a Canadian policy analyst who received government benefits when his father took a few years off to be a stay-at-home dad, pitched a proposal by Romney (R-Utah) to send monthly checks of $250 per child to millions of American parents. “Pro-life conservatives now have an obligation to address the financial insecurities associated with childbirth and parenthood,” Hammond told the July 1 gathering.

But the 30-minute pitch appeared to find few takers. One staffer asked Hammond about the political viability of Romney’s plan, which has won support from only two other GOP senators. (The proposal is similar to President Biden’s expanded child tax credit, which expired last year amid united Republican opposition.) Another asked whether the federal government hadn’t sent enough cash to families during the pandemic.

With Roe at risk, GOP faces pressure to support families after a birth

Since the Supreme Court moved in June to end national abortion protections, a long-running debate has flared within the GOP about whether and how to support parents. Hammond is part of a small cohort of conservatives arguing that the Dobbs v. Jackson decision requires a compassionate response to the millions of women likely to lose control over their pregnancies.

Some influential antiabortion and religious groups, like Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, have endorsed measures like Romney’s, arguing that the government now has a greater obligation to provide material support to families. Calls for action may intensify since Kansas voters last week overwhelmingly defeated an effort to strip away their state’s abortion protections, highlighting the possible political danger the issue holds for the GOP with midterm elections looming.

So far, however, those calls largely have been ignored by party leaders. GOP aides and conservative policy analysts are skeptical that the Supreme Court decision will produce a meaningful shift in the party’s stance on federal family benefits. Republicans have mostly opposed Democrats’ efforts to create new social programs for the last century. Meanwhile, one of their central economic policy goals — cutting federal taxes — is at odds with an expanded safety net.

As inflation has spiked over the past year, GOP leaders have ramped up attacks on federal spending, making the party even less likely to propose new benefits. Republicans have roundly rejected Biden’s proposals to expand child care, prekindergarten, national paid family leave — all measures designed specifically to ease the burden of raising young children.

And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has made clear that dwindling access to abortion has done nothing to change his view that new federal social programs are unnecessary.

“There are actually a lot of resources for expecting and new Moms, including Medicaid and S-CHIP for health care, maternal nutrition and child care programs,” McConnell spokesman Scott Sloofman said in a statement to The Washington Post. (S-CHIP is a health-care program for children created in the 1990s over the objections of Republicans in leadership at the time.) “What we shouldn’t do is expand massive government stimulus programs which would exacerbate the runaway inflation that is crushing Kentucky’s working families.”

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake said that stance represents a significant political liability for GOP candidates facing midterm voters.

“Republicans have a major, major problem right now with women, exacerbated by abortion but made a lot worse by their refusal to balance that liability with support for any kind of family benefits,” Lake said. “That could really make them pay a price in the fall, particularly with women, but there’s no evidence they’re going to change.”

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Some conservative lawmakers nonetheless are pressing the case for expanding family support, facing down both critics on the right — who oppose any new spending — and critics on the left, who argue that the Republican proposals are insufficient to meaningfully dent child poverty rates or improve parental outcomes.

“We have a history of laissez faire economic policies in the Republican Party. … But there are things that are important for the well-being of our country, and one of them is the strength of our families,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has pushed for a larger child tax credit.

Given the social changes likely to flow from Dobbs, he said, “we see an opportunity now to further — to really move on it.”

An emerging coalition seeks momentum within the GOP

In the early 2010s, Abby McCloskey was one of only two female economists on her team at the American Enterprise Institute, one of the most influential think tanks on the right. Her mostly older, mostly male colleagues were focused on the policy issues that have dominated GOP circles since before the Reagan revolution: tax cuts, regulatory reform, reducing government spending.

But McCloskey pored over data showing that mothers in the United States earn less after childbirth than fathers do, and she thought it revealed a problem in need of a government response.

The vast majority of conservative scholarship about paid-leave programs then argued they were unnecessary. Convulsed by the tea party movement, Republican lawmakers were focused on cutting, not creating, government programs for the poor. And there were no GOP-backed bills to create paid leave or child-care benefits.

“I started writing about that, and it was pretty uncomfortable,” said McCloskey, now a policy consultant based in Texas. “We felt really on our own, and yet the data was very convincing that this was a place for policy action.”

Over the last decade, other voices have emerged within the GOP expressing openness to more generous federal parental policies. As a candidate, Donald Trump in 2016 introduced a paid-leave plan, and as president, he extended paid leave to all federal workers in a deal with congressional Democrats.

As Republicans debated and assembled their 2017 tax cuts, Rubio and Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) fought for a more aggressive expansion of the child tax credit for low-income families in exchange for a slightly smaller corporate tax cut. The effort failed, though the law did increase the maximum families could claim from the child tax credit.

With Trump in the White House, Republican opposition to new spending was more relaxed than it usually is under Democratic presidents. Democrats running for president in 2020 backed massive new programs, and the GOP started to explore much smaller versions of similar ideas. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) introduced a bipartisan plan in 2019 that would allow parents to receive paid family leave benefits if they agreed to take less money from the child tax credit. Rubio that year also proposed a bill to let parents draw down their Social Security benefits years in advance to cover paid leave. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) in 2021 introduced legislation giving one year of the child tax credit to parents who suffer a miscarriage or stillbirth.

The high-water mark of Republican support for family policy may have come last year, when Romney introduced the first version of his $250-a-month family aid plan. It won wide praise from child-poverty advocates.

Meanwhile, evidence that society benefits from giving parents money has only grown stronger: A January 2022 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the babies of parents randomly given small cash payments had improved brain development outcomes. A separate paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research said that Biden’s expanded child tax credit led to a 25 percent decline in food insufficiency among families with children.

The Dobbs ruling has further energized conservative advocates of more generous family policies. Hammond said requests to discuss Romney’s plan from other GOP offices have more than doubled.

“Post Roe, Republican senators and members of Congress and candidates have been thinking much more creatively about what a substantively pro-family agenda could look like. It feels like a tectonic shift in the last few months.” said Saurabh Sharma, president of American Moment, a center-right think tank that organized Hammond’s talk.

As recently as a decade ago, “if you talked about ideas to encourage family formation and growth, you’d be laughed out of the room,” Sharma said. “That day is gone. … There is no longer anyone who does not at least take this idea seriously.”

‘This is not a new idea. This is a dumb old idea.’

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) had hoped that energy would translate into political action by her Republican colleagues. In recent weeks, as Biden’s Build Back Better bill stalled in the Senate, Gillibrand met with Cassidy and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) about advancing a bipartisan paid-leave plan for parents, according to a spokesman.

But those efforts have since stalled, encountering the same resistance that has animated GOP opposition to federal benefits for decades. Most conservatives argue that cutting taxes would be more beneficial to families than inefficient government programs.

“This is not a new idea. This is a dumb old idea,” anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, said of family support — adding that it keeps showing up “like herpes or shingles.”

Senators such as Romney and Rubio remain heavily outnumbered in the GOP, and their efforts have gained little traction. When Romney last month secured the support of GOP Sens. Richard Burr (N.C.) and Steve Daines (Mont.) for his family payment legislation, he reintroduced the measure with changes that would prevent the poorest families from receiving checks.

The lack of progress has been bitterly disappointing to conservatives like McCloskey, who argues that Republicans should seize the opportunity to respond to the seismic shift wrought by Dobbs.

“If not now, with this huge change in what it means to be pregnant in this country,” she said, “then when?”

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