House Democrats put paid leave back in budget bill as vote nears

Add-ons in House already running into Senate opposition, where amendments are likely

Speaker Nancy Pelosi, right, greets Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at the Congressional Women's Softball game in October. Gillibrand said Wednesday the House paid leave plan was an "extremely strong" proposal and a "great base" to build on in future legislation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, right, greets Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at the Congressional Women's Softball game in October. Gillibrand said Wednesday the House paid leave plan was an "extremely strong" proposal and a "great base" to build on in future legislation. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted November 3, 2021 at 1:10pm

House Democrats will include four weeks of paid family and medical leave in a manager’s amendment to the budget reconciliation package they plan to introduce Wednesday as the Rules Committee reconvenes to prepare the legislation for a floor vote.

Paid leave was excluded from a $1.75 trillion framework for the legislation the White House released last week amid opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin III.

The West Virginia Democrat said Wednesday he's still against including paid leave in the partisan reconciliation bill, which means the House package may need to be amended and sent back if the House passes that version. "I just think it's the wrong place to put it because it's a social expansion," he told reporters.

Manchin said he’s talked to Republicans about a bipartisan approach. But paid leave is a top priority for many Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and they feel reconciliation is their best shot at enacting it.

Pelosi sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to House Democrats on Wednesday morning saying the manager’s amendment “contains some changes” to the package.

“As we are reviewing priorities and at the urging of many Members of the Caucus, I have asked the Ways and Means Committee for its legislation for Paid Family and Medical Leave to be included in this morning’s [Rules] hearing,” the California Democrat said.

The Ways and Means and Means Committee in September approved legislation to provide 12 weeks of paid leave for serious personal or family health issues or the arrival of a new baby, adopted child or foster child that was expected to cost roughly $500 billion. That plan was included in House Democrats’ initial $3.5 trillion-plus reconciliation package that is now being cut in half amid deficit concerns from Manchin and other centrist Democrats.

The four-week proposal would cover the same types of family and medical leave in the initial Ways and Means proposal, according to a congressional source that requested anonymity to discuss details that were not yet publicly available.

'Great base'

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., last week floated just doing paid leave for parents of newborns in an effort to compromise with Manchin, but he had rejected that too.

Gillibrand said Wednesday the House plan was an "extremely strong" proposal and a "great base" to build on in future legislation. She didn't rule out Manchin eventually coming around to back a compromise on paid leave.

"He supports paid leave. It's just a question of how its framed and and how it works," Gillibrand said.

The House paid leave program would not start until 2024 but it would be made permanent at a cost of around $200 billion, according to the source.

Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., said in a statement that the policy would “finally give workers and their families the peace of mind of knowing that when disaster strikes, they can rely on paid leave to avoid total crisis.”

“We do this responsibly, fully paying for the means-tested program,” he said.

Neal did not elaborate on whether there would be new revenue offsets added to the legislation or whether the program would be paid for with the extra $150 billion to $250 billion in revenue the White House estimated its framework would produce. The program could also be offset by a few hundred billion dollars expected to come from prescription drug pricing negotiation provisions that are being added after Democrats struck a deal on that Tuesday.

Paid leave is something Neal and Appropriations Chairwoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., have championed for years, along with other House Democrats.

Neal said it was being added because of the “tireless advocacy” of those members. “I will continue to do whatever is necessary to get this provision signed into law by President Biden and give the American people the basic support they deserve,” he said.

Senate 'question mark'

Senate Democrats welcomed the House’s effort to add paid leave, even as they questioned whether they would have enough votes to pass it in the Senate given Manchin’s opposition and their inability to lose a single vote on the partisan package.

"It's incredibly important and I certainly will work as hard as I can to keep it in,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said. “I think it's a question mark certainly in the Senate, but it's definitely worth the effort."

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., called the House decision "a fantastic first step” and said Democrats would keep working to get enough votes to pass it.

"I"m going to pull out all the stops for paid family leave because I think it's a disgrace that we are essentially the only Western industrialized nation that hasn't figured it out,” Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., added.

Pelosi acknowledged in her letter that paid leave staying in the legislation will depend on Manchin’s cooperation, but she suggested the House may move forward with a vote before a final agreement has been reached.

“It had been my intention throughout this process to put on the House Floor and pass a bill that would pass the Senate in the same form,” she said. “Because I have been informed by a Senator of opposition to a few of the priorities contained in our bill … we must strive to find common ground in the legislation.”

Pelosi’s strategy may not fly with moderate Democrats whom she had promised would have to take only one vote on the reconciliation package, rather than sending a package to the Senate that may come back with changes.

A group of five moderate Democrats who were party to that commitment — Reps. Ed Case of Hawaii, Stephanie Murphy of Florida, Jared Golden of Maine, Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey and Kurt Schrader of Oregon — sent Pelosi a letter Tuesday urging her only to bring a bill to the floor that leaders “have a strong level of confidence” will pass the Senate.

Those members also said they wanted 72 hours to review the final bill text, as House rules require, and to see the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation scores providing spending and revenue estimates of the legislation.

The Rules Committee began its consideration of the reconciliation package last Thursday with initial draft text based on the White House framework, but Democrats have been negotiating further details on immigration, climate and child care provisions. They also secured a bicameral deal Tuesday on prescription drug pricing negotiation that was left out of the White House framework but is expected to be included in the updated text.

Pelosi in her letter sought to downplay moderates’ concerns, saying some of the updated text was posted six days ago and the rest will be incorporated in the amendment introduced Wednesday.

“At the same time, we have been conveying to the CBO and to the Senate the substance of the changes of the legislation, so that we can have, as soon as possible, a CBO letter, as well as comments for the Byrd bath and Privilege scrub,” the speaker said, referring to Senate requirements for reconciliation that are needed to avoid a Republican filibuster.

Notably, Pelosi did not say in her letter Wednesday whether the House would still try to vote on the reconciliation package this week. But she hinted that is still the goal by noting the ongoing United Nations climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, that Biden recently departed and a delegation of lawmakers, including Pelosi, are scheduled to attend after this week’s legislative session.

“As the world gathers in Glasgow to address the climate crisis, it is imperative that we show the world that America will do more than its fair share to meet and beat the standards,” she said.

Laura Weiss, Mary Ellen McIntire and David Lerman contributed to this report.