Child care workers would undergo stiffer background checks and states would spend more to improve the quality of day care under a sweeping, bipartisan bill crafted by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski that is set for a vote in the Senate as early as this week.
The legislation, which has broad support in the Senate, would impose a wide range of safety requirements on day care providers, from annual inspections of facilities to CPR training for staff. The measure would also require states to set aside millions more than they do now to improve the care young children receive.
Those changes — which would represent the first overhaul of the federal child care program aimed at low-income families in 18 years — are gaining traction in a Senate where recent partisan gridlock has forced the delay of efforts to increase benefits for veterans and the long-term unemployed.
"It is not enough to simply ensure that kids have someplace to go," said Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat. "We must also ensure that they go someplace that is safe, that nurtures their development … and that prepares them for school."
The legislation would update the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, originally signed into law by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. More than 1.6 million children nationally — including about 25,000 in Maryland, according to advocates — benefit from the $5.3 billion program.
Lawmakers in both parties have embraced the importance of improving early childhood education, but differ on how to pay for it. President Barack Obama and some Democratic lawmakers have called for increased spending to prepare young people for grade school.
In taking on a more narrow measure, Mikulski is pressing to nationalize many policies that are already in place in Maryland. The nonprofit group Child Care Aware of America ranked the state sixth in the nation in 2012 for oversight of small, home-based child care facilities.
Mikulski's proposal would strengthen those requirements in the state, such as by mandating checks against Maryland's sex offender registry for those operating a day care.
Only nine states perform what advocates consider "comprehensive" background checks, including the sex-offender check and the use of fingerprints to search state and FBI criminal databases. Maryland is not one of them.
If approved, the new requirements would apply only to day care facilities in which a child's family receives a subsidy under the federal program. But supporters hope the provisions in the legislation would become the industry standard.
In Maryland, a single parent with two children must earn less than $29,990 to be eligible for the subsidy. The average annual fee for an infant in a full-time day center is just over $13,000, according to Child Care Aware of America.
Lynette M. Fraga, executive director of the group, called the bill "an opportunity for Congress to take a monumental step forward toward improving the quality in child care."
The organization, whose membership includes child care referral agencies, works to improve the quality of care.
The federal program has historically had support from Republicans who frame it as a way to help parents work. Mikulski co-wrote the bill with Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina.
"For many families, especially single-parent households, having access to affordable child care is the only way they can work and not be dependent on welfare," Burr said in a statement.
"This is not another Washington entitlement but an investment in the self-sufficiency of some of our hardest working families," he said.
The measure appears to be cruising through the Senate, where Democrats hold a majority. Supporters initially hoped the bill would be on the floor Tuesday, though Monday's storm is likely to push its consideration back a few days.
Significant support for the measure would be a political win for Mikulski, marking the second time this year she has managed to advance legislation despite political acrimony on Capitol Hill. As the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Mikulski negotiated a government-wide funding bill in January that passed with broad bipartisan support — and avoided a second federal shutdown.
Still, it's not clear whether the Republican-controlled House will support a similar bill ahead of this year's mid-term elections.
"It really has not gotten much attention" in the House, said Clare McCann, a policy analyst with the Education Policy Program at the nonpartisan New America Foundation.
But that could change. The Obama administration is already moving toward making many of the changes through regulations — meaning the legislation may be the best opportunity for lawmakers to have a hand in the process.
"In an election year there has been more pressure on lawmakers in both chambers to have more emphasis on early childhood education," McCann said.
In addition to background checks, the measure would require states to develop health and safety standards for first aid, CPR and sudden infant death syndrome. It would also mandate at least one inspection of a facility a year.
The legislation would also require states to set aside at least 10 percent of their grant money for quality improvement — such as training for day care workers or better classroom resources.