WASHINGTON — Senators introduced a new bipartisan proposal for parental leave Tuesday, as the push for a national paid family leave policy grows stronger.

“In many cases, the first year of life is the most expensive for a family. This legislation addresses this, focuses resources and eases financial strain to provide a longer bonding period for the family,” said Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., the sponsor of the bill, at its launch July 30.

“Too many parents are forced to choose between losing time with a new child or taking on debt to make up for lost wages,” said Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., the bill’s lead cosponsor, who said that it “represents an important first step, offering parents a new option to finance time off of work or help pay for childcare.”

The Cassidy-Sinema proposal would not expand the child tax credit, but would rather reapportion it so that parents can choose to take a $5,000 benefit up front at the birth of a child; their $2,000 child tax credit would then be adjusted to $1,500 over ten years.  

This benefit would allow parents the financial support for when they arguably need it the most, the bill’s supporters say, giving them the flexibility to either cover the costs of taking unpaid leave from work or to pay for child care while returning to work.

“It’s basically to help families meet childcare expenses, to help families cope with the additional expenses” of having children, Aparna Mathur, a resident scholar in economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, explained to CNA.

The USCCB has supported the general policy of paid family leave, telling CNA last year that “we welcome and encourage” new policies to address the needs of parents taking unpaid leave from work, and that parents “ought to be supported in their calling to raise the next generation.”

Popular support is growing for policies on paid parental leave, along with paid leave for family and medical issues. In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that 82% of Americans support paid maternity leave; 69 percent favor paid paternity leave; 85% favor paid leave to deal with one’s serious health condition, or “paid medical leave”; and 67% favor “paid family leave,” or leave to care for a sick family member.

In 2016, the Archdiocese of Chicago instituted a 12-week paid parental leave policy, putting itself at the forefront of employers both religious and secular, public and private.

Other paid parental leave proposals have been introduced in the 116th Congress by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

“It’s encouraging that my colleagues on both sides of the aisle are in agreement that Congress should enact a program for paid family leave,” Sen. Rubio s told CNA on Wednesday.

“I am hopeful that Democrats and Republicans can eventually come together to pass a paid family leave proposal that provides the flexibility and benefits working and stay-at-home moms and dads deserve,” the senator said.

Rubio’s New Parents Act, introduced along with Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah and a House version sponsored by Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Mo. with Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas as the lead cosponsor, would give parents the option of tapping into Social Security benefits after the birth or adoption of a child; parents could then either retire later (at six months delay per child), or take reduced Social Security benefits for five years.

Sen. Gillibrand’s Family Act, with Rep. Rosa DeLauro sponsoring the House version, would create a new national program to cover up to 12 weeks of partial paid leave for a new child, or to care for a sick family member or for medical reasons; it would pay for the benefit through increases in payroll taxes.

President Trump has also called for a nationwide paid family leave program, including in his 2019 State of the Union address to Congress, and his daughter Ivanka has advocated for paid family leave.

The 2017 tax law also established tax incentives for employers offering paid family and medical leave. California, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, New York, and Washington, D.C. are the only states to have passed paid family and medical leave policies.

Paid parental leave may be gaining momentum nationally, but there are significant differences between liberals and conservatives on the issue.

Conservatives tend to be skeptical of creating a new government program or raising taxes to pay for federal paid leave policies, and generally want to limit paid leave to only for the birth or adoption of a child. Liberals, meanwhile, prefer creating a new government program and expanding paid leave to include uses for family and medical care, and balk at the concept of interest-free loans from the government, Mathur explained.

One thing that Mathur noted, along with the Heritage Foundation’s research fellow Rachel Greszler, is that middle-to-high income earners tend to utilize paid leave policies through their employers or state and local programs.

According to a 2017 Pew Research survey only 22 percent of workers surveyed with incomes of less than $30,000 a year reported receiving income while on leave for parental, medical, or family reasons.

Furthermore, the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provided 12 weeks of unpaid time off for qualified employees; around 40 percent of workers, mostly low-income earners, do not qualify for this benefit of unpaid leave, Mathur said.

Thus, low-income earners tend to slip through the cracks when it comes to accessing paid and unpaid leave benefits.

“It is exactly the disadvantaged workers, the workers with low incomes, workers who have part-time work, who cannot hold down steady jobs, those are the ones who are the most affected and have the least access to either paid or unpaid leave,” Mathur said. “It makes sense at least to come together to talk about something that would help the poorest workers.”

A “prebate paid family leave program” could only end up being a “subsidized loan to middle and upper-income earners who are more likely to already have access to paid family leave,” Greszler said.

She added that the Cassidy-Sinema proposal is “unique” in that it adds no new taxes or employer mandates, but sets up a policy that is essentially an “interest-free government loan”; she warned that could set up “a slippery slope” where taxpayers could do the same with other tax credits, such as buying a home or a car.