It was 10 words in an hour-and-a-half long speech. But midway through his State of the Union address on Tuesday night, President Donald Trump called on lawmakers in attendance to pursue a piece of domestic policy that has become a pet cause of his daughter and close aide Ivanka.
“And let us support working families by supporting paid family leave,” Trump said.
Paid family leave is often associated with progressive politics. But Trump and his team have pushed it, often as an illustration of the amorphous ideological agenda he has brought to the White House.
Despite including it in the State of the Union address, however, few now expect that any bill will be moved during the year ahead. That reality was underscored by the look on House Speaker Paul Ryan’s face when Trump mentioned paid family leave during his prime-time speech. The Wisconsin Republican offered, at best, a golf clap.
Still, an administration official told The Daily Beast, that they were “pleasantly surprised by the progress we are making in generating conversation around the issue” but cautioned that, “we know how hard it is going to be and that for all the talk on the issue, nobody has been able to get it done before.”
If progress is being made, it is not sensed by Democrats on the Hill. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) who serves as the party’s point person on the matter, had been in touch with Ivanka Trump early in 2017 to discuss paid family leave. But an aide to the senator said that there have been no discussions since March of that year.
The administration, for its part, insists that the commitment to the concept is sincere, even if the line in the State of the Union address was, as one official conceded, thrown in at the behest of the first daughter. The president included a proposal for paid family leave in his budget. He talked about it during his bicameral address in 2017. And Ivanka has done several events in which she’s discussed it or engaged lawmakers and stakeholders on legislative proposals.
The problem has been finding the right legislative formula to satisfy all—or at least a majority of—parties.
The proposal the White House has pushed calls for six weeks of paid leave for mothers, fathers, and adoptive parents. It would be financed through unemployment insurance programs and administered by the states. Gillibrand has been open about her disagreement with this approach, arguing that paid leave has to be national, must be structured as a social insurance program (i.e., have a finance stream that a wide swath of the population contributes to), must be gender neutral, and must cover not just the birth of a child but also time that workers spend caring for sick family members. The senator also wants up to 12 weeks of paid family leave, not six.
Finding a middle ground has proved, essentially, impossible. Republican leadership has never wavered in their opposition to Gillibrand’s approach. Ryan has said he opposes any leave policy that requires employers to give their workers paid time off for the birth of a child—favoring, instead, legislation that would allow workers to bank overtime hours to use at a later date for comp time. His office confirmed on Wednesday that this remains his position.
Ivanka Trump said over the summer that she was flexible in adjusting her proposal. But indications are that the administration is making it more generous in length but more conservative in its structuring.
A new proposal under consideration would be for a 12-week paid leave program that would be financed by allowing individuals to collect their Social Security benefits early. The idea is championed by Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) who worked with Ivanka to structure a child tax credit as part of the Republican Party’s successful push for tax cuts last year.
It is not final, however. And a White House official would only say that, “The White House is beginning a policy review process on it.”