Marco Rubio is starting to strategize with Ivanka Trump to win over skeptical Republicans on a traditionally Democratic issue: paid family leave.
Capitalizing on President Donald Trump’s endorsement of the idea in his State of the Union address, Rubio is trying to marshal Republicans behind a plan that would neither impose a mandate on employers nor raise taxes to pay for it — two hurdles that have long halted the GOP from embracing paid family leave.
“We still have to work on members of my own party,” Rubio said in an extended interview with POLITICO about his effort. “I think there will be significant initial resistance to it, because it’s just not an issue that’s been identified with the Republican Party.”
Rubio has barely started crafting a paid leave bill, much less a broader legislative strategy. But he envisions an idea that has recently gained traction in conservative circles: allowing people to draw Social Security benefits when they want to take time off for a new baby or other family-related matters, and then delay their checks when they hit retirement age.
For instance, a person who would begin receiving full benefits when he or she turns 67 years old but wants to take six weeks of paid leave wouldn’t draw Social Security checks until six weeks after his or her 67th birthday.
“That’s a new idea for Republicans who still identify it as something that comes out of the left,” Rubio said of paid family leave. “Forcing companies to provide it is perhaps an idea that finds its genesis on the left, but the notion that pregnancy should not be a bankruptcy-eliciting event is one that I think all Americans should be supportive.”
Rubio and Ivanka Trump have recently exchanged emails about paid family leave. And in his Senate office in late January, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) also privately pitched the concept to the president’s daughter, who gave it a warm reception, according to one person familiar with the meeting. Lee is a close ally of Rubio, and they jointly lobbied for expanding the child tax credit — an Ivanka-backed effort that prompted Rubio to nearly tank the tax bill in the final days of the overhaul. He ultimately voted for it.
Rubio is still in the early stages of crafting a paid leave plan that a critical mass of congressional Republicans and the Trump administration could get behind. In private conversations with senators, Ivanka Trump has discussed hiking payroll taxes or otherwise paying into Social Security to create a new, personal paid leave fund, according to multiple senior GOP sources.
The concept mirrors what Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has proposed. But any plan that raises taxes, especially to create what would effectively be a new entitlement, would hit automatic resistance among Republicans.
Still, congressional sources said Trump has signaled she’ll be flexible in order to lock down a win on a signature policy initiative. A White House official said Ivanka Trump has explored several proposals involving paid leave and the payroll tax idea was one option presented to her.
“While we are pleasantly surprised by the progress we are making in generating conversation around the issue, 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,” the White House official said. “We are committed to it and the priority now is to continue to build a coalition.”
Rubio’s full-throated defense of a conservative vision of paid family leave is the next chapter in the senator’s policy evolution since he burst onto the national stage as a telegenic GOP rising star in 2010.
His first major policy push as a senator — immigration — bruised Rubio politically. He eventually backed away from the so-called Gang of Eight approach and then struggled to win over GOP primary voters in his 2016 presidential bid. Since then, Rubio has largely pivoted to what he calls a “pro-family” policy platform and teamed up with a younger generation of GOP senators like Lee and Tim Scott (R-S.C.) to promote a softer side of conservatism.
Rubio hasn’t ignored immigration, however. The Florida Republican has attended nearly a half-dozen meetings of a swelling group of deal-minded senators led by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who are trying to piece together an immigration framework that leadership could bring to the floor.
Paid family leave has an murkier legislative future than immigration in Congress this year.
Republicans already scored a major win on paid leave through their tax bill. The final measure included provisions that would offer a tax credit for businesses who voluntarily offer employees paid leave — a brainchild of Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) and a policy endorsed by Rubio during his presidential bid.
Since that bill was signed into law in December, Fischer has focused mostly on implementing the tax credit and promoting it, a spokeswoman said. But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has met multiple times with the president’s daughter and appears to want to make more headway on the issue this year.
“Sen. Alexander is impressed with Ivanka Trump’s advocacy of paid family leave, and he is working with her to assess whether there is consensus in the Senate that could lead to a result,” Alexander spokeswoman Liz Wolgemuth said.
The president’s budget plan last year called for a six-week paid leave plan that would be financed by state unemployment insurance programs, but it went nowhere as Republicans opted for Fischer’s tax-credit idea instead. The White House official said the proposal was meant as a “flag in the ground,” adding: “We continue to meet on various options.”
Rubio says the new paid leave push would be “complementary” to Fischer’s plan that is now law. The Florida senator said another idea he’d like to push in addition to Social Security parental benefits is allowing an advance on the child tax credit once a child is born, instead of waiting until a person files taxes.
Rubio argues the overall plan would benefit those with lower incomes, since they’re less likely to work for companies that proactively offer paid family leave. He also disputes the pure free-market view that businesses will eventually provide leave because employees will demand it. “Frankly, there’s no evidence that’s the case anywhere, particularly down into the $20,000, $30,000, $35,000 range,” he said.
For “people that I know and interact with, going two weeks without a paycheck is catastrophic,” Rubio said. “Imagine going two months or three months. … They gotta give you time under the law but you don’t get paid. It’s just not a sustainable thing.”
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