Parental leave act moves closer to law

House passes measure granting federal employees four weeks of paid leave for the birth of a child, defeats GOP amendment intended to defray costs.

Supporters of legislation to give federal employees the right to take paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child had cause to celebrate on Thursday evening.

The House passed the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act (H.R. 626) by a vote of 258-154, fending off criticism of its price tag. A companion bill, S. 354, sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., is before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said he was sure President Obama would sign the measure if it reaches his desk. On Wednesday, the White House issued a statement saying it "agrees with the goals" of H.R. 626 and looks forward to working with Congress on the issue.

The bill would give federal employees four weeks of paid leave following the birth or adoption of a child, and would let the Office of Personnel Management grant an additional four weeks of paid leave through regulations. Those weeks would be within the 12 weeks of unpaid leave mandated by the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act.

The bill's sponsors said they had been advocating this benefit for the past 15 years. Similar legislation that guaranteed eight weeks of paid leave passed the House 278-146 in 2008, but languished in the Senate.

"This shows that the government doesn't just talk about family values -- it values families," said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., the 2009 bill's sponsor, during a news conference on Thursday.

According to Maloney's office, 53 percent of private sector companies offer some type of paid parental leave. She also noted that 167 countries guarantee parental leave for all their citizens.

Webb, a military veteran who also spoke at the news conference, said uniformed service members already are eligible for paid parental leave. "This is an issue of fairness," he said.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the cost would be $938 million over the period of fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2014. The estimate takes into account a 50 percent probability that OPM would increase the amount of paid leave through regulations.

The bill's cost made it a magnet for Republican criticism.

"These are tough times, regardless of what industry you're in," said Rep. Christopher Lee, R-N.Y. "Think about the retail workers who are being forced to do more with less. Think about that, when Washington turns around and offers more generous fringe benefits to public sector employees."

The House rejected an amendment by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, that would have kept the four weeks of paid parental leave, but required workers to use that as an advance, borrowed from future accrued vacation leave. The amendment also would have forced workers to use all available paid leave before taking paid parental leave.

In a statement Issa said the language would alleviate taxpayers' burden while ensuring the benefit for federal workers.

Rep. Stephen Lynch, D-Mass., opposed the amendment. "It's wrong," Lynch said during Thursday's press conference. "And from an employer's standpoint, it doesn't make sense."

Lynch's office said it would have gutted the bill, and that employees already can get advances of sick or vacation time to use after the birth of a child.

The amendment was defeated, 157-258.

The bill has support from the National Treasury Employees Union, American Federation of Government Employees and Federally Employed Women.