A cocktail party on Capitol Hill is often hardly notable.
But at one recent soiree, the clinking of glasses had a different ring. Members of both parties joined together to kick off a renewed effort to solve a uniquely American problem: no universal paid family and medical leave.
It’s been 30 years since the Family and Medical Leave Act became law. It guaranteed workers the right to unpaid, job-protected time off.
But the United States is one of only seven countries in the world without some form of universal paid family and medical leave.
A bipartisan congressional duo is trying to change that.
“We live in the greatest nation in the world, and we do so many things well, but when you’re talking about families, this is one area that we have struggled,” Republican Rep. Stephanie Bice of Oklahoma told CNN during an interview in her Capitol Hill office last month.
Sitting beside her, nodding, was Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania.
“It’s frankly an embarrassment that we are one of the seven nations or so that doesn’t have this kind of focus on the family,” Houlahan said. “It’s really, really important that we lead by our example.”
At the end of January, determined to find a solution to the lack of universal paid family and medical leave in America, the congresswomen officially launched their House Bipartisan Paid Family Leave Working Group.
“We are action-oriented, and we are committed to having open eyes and ears,” Houlahan said, addressing policy advocates and politicians alongside Bice at the group’s launch party.
Their task force is composed of six House members: three from each party, including Democrats Colin Allred of Texas and Haley Stevens of Michigan and Republicans Julia Letlow of Louisiana and Mariannette Miller-Meeks of Iowa. Such a partnership across the aisle, Bice insisted, is not that uncommon.
“More of that happens than people realize back home,” the Oklahoma Republican told CNN. “There’s a lot of bipartisanship that goes on behind the scenes, trying to bring everyone together and move the country forward. And this is one way we’re doing that.”
Houlahan represents a blue-leaning district in eastern Pennsylvania that includes parts of the Philadelphia suburbs. Bice represents a reliably red seat that includes parts of Oklahoma City. They’re both relatively new to Congress – elected in 2018 and 2020, respectively. They shared committee assignments – and previously a hallway in a House office building – and “just kind of connected,” said Bice.
But the two have something else in common: They’re both mothers with daughters.
Bice said she worked in the private sector when her daughters were born and had the ability to take paid family leave through her company. That was 20 years ago. “[It] was almost unheard of,” she shared. She said she doesn’t know what she would have done without that opportunity for paid time off.
The Oklahoma native acknowledges that her circumstance was the exception, not the rule, when it came to paid family leave. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 1 in 4 workers had access to paid family leave in 2022.
Families in the lowest 25% of wage earners had even less access. Only 13% of those low-income workers were eligible for paid family leave last year.
“I was incredibly fortunate,” Bice said.
Houlahan was an active-duty officer in the Air Force when her daughter was born 30 years ago. She recalled that the policy at the time was effectively six weeks of convalescence.
“And I know, I remember acutely that the child care on the base was a six-month waiting list,” Houlahan said. “I couldn’t figure out how to make ends meet.”
The veteran said she struggled to find a solution: Child care on the base was affordable but not accessible, and child care off base was the opposite.
“To be really honest, it was one of the reasons that drove me to separate from the military,” she admitted. “These are choices that are being made by husbands and wives and families across the country.”
A lack of paid family and medical leave doesn’t just create burdens for families, Houlahan said – it hurts the economy by taking women out of the workforce, causing what she called a “vicious cycle.”
“The domino effect of all of this kind of thing is real,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said. “When we’re talking about these issues, it’s not just about the mom. It’s not just about the family. It’s about the infrastructure and the economy as well.”
Bice and Houlahan face what many from the outside would call insurmountable odds: a deeply partisan and divided Congress, with narrow majorities in both chambers. But Houlahan said the razor-thin majorities present an opening.
“We have an opportunity-rich environment right now, to use a military term, to make sure that we take advantage of this really special time, honestly, where the majorities and minorities are so small and so slim that it really requires that we work together,” she said.
“We can pretty much assure that our far edges of both parties will not necessarily be interested in working collaboratively,” Houlahan added. “So we need to find that moderate middle.”
Bice hopes the growing number of women in the House GOP Conference will make a difference, too. There are now 33 Republican women serving in the chamber – the highest number ever. It’s still small in comparison with the 91 female House Democrats (soon to be 92) across the aisle, but it’s momentum nonetheless.
“Having that female conservative perspective, I think, is important to bring to the conversation,” Bice said. “Many of the women in the Republican Conference are young mothers. And so I think this conversation is ripe on our side of the aisle right now.”
Part of the frustration in Washington – and around the country – is that universal paid family and medical leave is quite popular across the political spectrum. A Morning Consult poll this past summer found that 85% of Democrats and 66% of Republicans supported congressional action on ensuring paid family leave.
But the two parties have deep philosophical differences about how to pay for it. It’s part of the reason successful legislation has eluded Congress – and a big obstacle for Bice and Houlahan as they start their work.
“We want to start with a clean slate,” Bice said. “Coming at this from maybe a new fresh perspective, looking at what’s been done in the past. What legislation currently in place isn’t working? And figuring out either do we expand on that or do we pull back and look at a new policy that would actually be much more effective?”
They’re also realistic about what’s possible. Houlahan is prepared for incremental change.
“If we’re able to give some family leave for benefits to our federal employees and then our uniform personnel and then this population and then that population, at least we’re making progress,” she said.
Bice and Houlahan are certainly not the first lawmakers to try to tackle the issue in recent years.
In 2021, House Democrats pushed to get 12 weeks of universal paid leave in the sweeping Build Back Better package. They eventually pared it down to just four weeks to get the necessary votes to pass in the House along party lines. But the $1.75 trillion social spending bill stalled in the Senate. Paid family leave was then left out of Democrats’ $750 billion climate, tax and health care package, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, that was enacted last summer.
Houlahan told CNN that she and Bice “stand on the shoulders of great people, mostly women,” who have worked on the issue for decades and across the Capitol. Currently, New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand and Louisiana Republican Bill Cassidy are among the senators working on solutions of their own in the upper chamber.
The House working group co-chairs also acknowledge the importance of bringing men into the conversation. Their six-member task force includes Allred, who made headlines in 2019 when he became the first member of Congress to take paternity leave.
“If we’re going to be pro-family, it’s going to be pro-family, Mom and Dad,” Bice said.
This February marked three decades since the Family and Medical Leave Act became law.
“We’ve been at this since I was pregnant,” Houlahan quipped at the launch party for their group, noting that her oldest daughter is 30 years old.
“It’s time for there to be additional progress on this issue. It’s wonderful that you now can’t lose your job for taking time off, but that’s not enough for us to be a competitive nation. I don’t think that embodies the American values of the strengths of families as well,” she told CNN in the joint interview.
Her Republican colleague agreed.
“It’s time for us to find a solution and take action,” Bice said. “Thirty years is too long. You can’t sit back and watch. You got to move forward.”
This headline has been updated.