Congress again considering family-leave measure Bill requiring time off for family needs is bait for presidential veto.


WASHINGTON -- As the nation's attention shifts to domestic issues again, Congress is quickly moving toward a vote on family leave -- social legislation that seems tailored for the '90s.

In these times of single-parent and dual-career families, polls show strong support for a law requiring companies to allow their workers up to three months of unpaid leave to care for a new child or cope with a serious illness in the immediate family.

Though last year's family-leave bill was vetoed by President Bush, supporters say their strength has increased and prospects are now better.

"We're talking about a fundamental economic necessity here, not triviality," Rep. Marge Roukema, R-N.J., said yesterday as a House subcommittee voted 16-7 to start the family-leave bill on its way to the floor.

What's more, it's a benefit that would cost little for the deficit-ridden federal government.

But the bill still faces a dead end at the White House. In vetoing family leave last year, Bush said workplace benefits should be set by companies and their employees, not dictated by the federal government. And Bush has shown no sign of changing his mind.

"It's sort of like same book, second chapter," said Mary Tavenner, a lobbyist for the National Association of Wholesalers, one of the business groups opposing the bill. She is confident Bush will veto it again.

Democrats say they wouldn't mind it at all if their first big domestic policy fight of the year with Bush came on family leave.

House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., and Senate Majority Leader George J. Mitchell, D-Maine, have made the bill a top legislative priority. A vote in the House is expected between Easter and Memorial Day.

"This is more or less part of the strategy of the leadership to offset the president's strength," Tavenner said. "This is one of a long list of items the leadership wants to put out for political reasons."

Individual Republicans are starting to shift away from the White House line, which runs parallel to the business lobby's position.

In the Senate, Daniel R. Coats, R-Ind., the ranking GOP member on the subcommittee that handles family and children's issues, unexpectedly endorsed the bill at a recent hearing.

"Supporting families is preventive social activism," Coats said. "It allows us to encourage success -- not deal with the results of failure."

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