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Democrats Outline 'Care Infrastructure' Plan, With Paid Leave And Child Care

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., is leading Democrats in a push to include child care and paid leave in upcoming legislation.
Andrew Harnik
House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., is leading Democrats in a push to include child care and paid leave in upcoming legislation.

Congressional Democrats are further expanding the definition of infrastructure with a plan to provide paid leave and family benefits for the vast majority of Americans.

Democrats are specifically calling the proposal "care infrastructure," adding to a party-wide push to redefine infrastructure beyond physical projects like roads, bridges and waterways. Republicans have almost universally rejected this rebranding, but Democrats insist that infrastructure should refer to all of the systems that contribute to a thriving economy.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., is leading the effort along with members of the committee, which is responsible for health care, Social Security and taxes.

"Our economy is premised on the idea that some workers are worthy of 'perks', like paid leave or affordable child care that works for their schedules, while the majority are forced to fend for themselves," Neal said in a statement. "For our economy to fully recover from this pandemic, we must finally acknowledge that workers have families, and caregiving responsibilities are real."

The framework unveiled Tuesday outlines policy goals without providing specific details of how much the proposals would cost, or how Democrats would pay for them.

The main elements of the plan include 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave for all workers, credits to employers to increase wages for child care workers and permanent expansions of existing tax credits.

The expansive proposal is likely to garner significant support among Democrats, but that does not guarantee success for legislation that could be both costly and difficult to implement. Democrats hold a slim majority in both chambers and Republicans are unlikely to back the plan.

Neal's measure comes a day before President Biden's first joint address to Congress, on Wednesday night, when he's set to discuss aspect of his American Families Plan, which will propose billions of dollars of new spending for child care, education and paid leave. Democrats are rushing to advocate for individual elements of Biden's plan.

Democrats remain internally divided over how to approach any kind of infrastructure legislation. Some are pushing for Biden to work with Republicans on a smaller, more targeted plan that could gain bipartisan support. That would allow Democrats to pursue partisan elements separately.

Such a strategy might allow Democrats to take advantage of the budget process to bypass the threat of a filibuster in the Senate. Budget reconciliation rules allow the majority party to pass certain tax and spending policies with a simple majority. Democrats control 50 votes in the upper chamber and could approve the legislation without Republicans, provided they have unanimous support within their own party.

But such a move is risky because many of the more progressive policies included in an expanded definition of infrastructure may not have support among more moderate Democrats.

It is unclear how this legislation will be received by moderates, like Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., whose support could be critical to passing legislation, particularly partisan legislation, in the Senate.

The paid leave portion of the plan would provide partial wage replacement during the 12-week leave period. Democrats estimate that most workers would receive about two-thirds of their wages while on leave, though lower-income workers could receive a higher level of wage replacement. The framework calls for the program to be run by the Treasury Department in partnership with existing state paid leave programs and through employers that already provide benefits.

The child care elements of the plan include a refundable payroll tax credit of up to $5,000 per year for eligible child care providers who raise wages.

Democrats also propose making permanent several programs that were included in the $1.9 trillion American Jobs Act that was signed into law in March. Those programs include an expanded child tax credit of up to $3,600 per year, paid out monthly; a refundable tax credit of up to $8,000 for dependent care expenses; and a broader Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income workers.

The plan also proposes a network to keep workers informed of all of the benefits available to them in order to ensure more people would use the programs.

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Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.