WASHINGTON -- Last month the Senate passed a measure during the midnight hours that has one lawmaker pretty pumped up.
The issue: paid sick days for all Americans. It’s something Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) feels "really strongly about.” And after 15 Republican senators voted in favor of her amendment during a budget vote-a-rama, she sees an opportunity to go all the way.
Her amendment, which seeks to ensure that all workers can take up to seven sick days a year and be guaranteed pay while recovering from an illness or caring for a sick family member, passed the Senate 61-39 in late March. At the time, Murray, who is up for re-election in 2016, was pretty positive the entire Democratic conference would back the measure and probably a few Republicans, but not 15.
That number has given her fresh hope -- despite the cards stacked against her.
The problem with the budget amendment is that it doesn’t make paid sick leave the law -- the entire budget resolution just sets guidelines for legislators as they draft actual spending bills. Still, in an interview with The Huffington Post, Murray said she “absolutely” thinks her paid sick leave bill has fresh legs after the budget vote.
“I’ll be working with every avenue I have,” Murray said. “Obviously the budget conferees have been instructed to provide a path for paid sick leave within the budget, and I expect them to follow that -- and not just to have a vote -- and continue to make sure this policy is implemented.”
However, while a surprising number of Republicans voted for Murray’s amendment, they may not be as eager to back the real bill. Instead they may opt for a proposal from Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah). Lee’s bill would allow workers to use built-up overtime hours to cover paid vacation or sick days.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, won’t commit to voting for Murray’s bill, despite voting for her amendment during the budget marathon.
“Senator Alexander believes Washington should do what it can to encourage employers to voluntarily offer paid sick leave, and also supports Senator Lee’s bill to allow private-sector workers the option to receive paid vacation instead of overtime pay if they choose,” said an Alexander aide.
The aide added that while Murray’s option may be “well-intentioned,” it would “make it harder for workers to find new jobs as it saddles employers with more government regulations.”
It also appears unlikely that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would agree to bring Murray’s bill to the floor. Forcing his members to choose between business interests and average workers is not something the majority leader is presumably eager to do leading up to the 2016 elections.
In a recent letter to McConnell, Senate Democrats pressed for votes on a variety of bills that received bipartisan support during the budget marathon, including Murray’s.
Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman, shot back that Democrats “left out a lot of amendments that passed with bipartisan support.” He advised that “Senators of both parties now have the opportunity to work with the appropriate committee chairmen to report bipartisan legislation that complies with the budget.”
Pressed on the depth of GOP support for her legislation, Murray said she is optimistic that lawmakers recognize the need to take action.
“A number of Republican senators have said to me that when people are sick, they shouldn’t be at work,” she said.
Hinting at possible 2016 pushback, Murray added, “I think the American people again are pretty savvy and if Republicans vote on a budget amendment and say they are for paid sick leave, but they don’t make it a priority or they pass legislation that doesn’t actually provide paid sick leave, American voters are going to know it and they are going to know it fast because it won’t work for them.”
Besides Murray’s latest efforts, which will include trying to corral Republicans behind her bill and pressing leadership to allow it to come to the floor, public interest advocates are arguing that now more than ever is the time to do something.
Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, said that “this is the time, this is the moment” to pass federal legislation on paid sick leave. She said the March vote was “heartening and a sign of how far Congress has come on this issue.”
Shabo holds no illusions, however. “It’s certainly not a done deal,” she said.
“The first step is to conduct outreach and educate those Republicans who voted for the budget amendment,” Shabo said. “And we will hold them accountable -- those who support what’s symbolic versus those who support what’s real.”
Even if direct appeals to federal lawmakers don’t work, she added, the advocacy group will continue pushing for state action. So far, three states and 18 cities have passed legislation requiring employers to provide paid sick leave for workers.
For her part, Murray said that she won’t be deterred and that she hopes to see movement “as soon as possible.”
“We are looking at a lot of different things, and I’ll be looking for avenues I can move forward on it on any way I can,” she said.
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