WASHINGTON -- Congressional Democrats, seeking to embarrass President Bush on the GOP's own "family values" issue, approved and sent to the White House yesterday a family leave bill that the president has threatened to veto despite widespread support.
The legislation would require larger employers to grant workers up to 12 weeks a year of unpaid leave, either to obtain medical treatment for themselves or to care for a newborn baby, sick children, ill spouses or elderly parents.
Although companies would not be forced to pay workers for the time off, they would be required to continue they employees' medical insurance and to guarantee that their jobs would be available when they return.
While Mr. Bush has said repeatedly that he approves of the concept, he objects to forcing companies to provide the time off, believing that such a requirement would be especially burdensome to smaller companies.
As yesterday's vote approached, White House aides suggested to Capitol Hill that Mr. Bush might instead entertain using several hundred million dollars in tax incentives to encourage small employers to provide the leaves. But they reiterated the president's intention to veto the latest legislation, as he had a similar bill in 1990.
The legislation approved yesterday by the House in a 241-161 vote was a compromise version of the measure endorsed by the Senate in a voice-vote last month.
The majority of the Maryland House delegation supported the bill, though Democrat Beverly B. Byron, 6th District, and Republicans Helen Delich Bentley, 2nd District, and Wayne T. Gilchrest, 1st District, voted against it.
In all, 203 Democrats and 37 Republicans supported it. Although the margin fell short of the two-thirds majority that would be needed to override a veto, Democratic leaders said they hope the president's rejection would convince voters that they, and not the Republicans, were the strongest supporters of "family values."
The catch phrase, a major theme of the Bush campaign, is now being used by both parties to demonstrate their commitment to tackling some of the issues troubling Americans, from economics to questions of morality.
House Speaker Thomas S. Foley, D-Wash., said that the legislative gridlock so often criticized by Mr. Bush actually "lies with the president" on the family values issue. "There is no more concrete example of legislation dealing with family values than [this bill]," Mr. Foley said.
As expected, the fiercely partisan battle sparked unusually heated floor debate. Speaking for the Bush administration, Rep. Robert S. Walker, R-Pa., argued that this was "not a bill about families" but merely another Democratic attempt to draw government into family problems.
"This bill kills jobs," he said, by bloating employers' costs and making them less able to hire more workers.
But Democrats contended that the Republicans' concerns were overblown and insisted that the United States was the only major industrialized country that did not guarantee its workers protection against dismissal for taking extended leave when family emergencies arose.
"For the parents whose employers do not provide this benefit voluntarily, the choice between keeping one's job or caring for a new child or sick family member is a choice no American should have to make," said House Majority Leader Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo.
For all the political furor, this year's version of the bill is substantially weaker than the one that the Democrats sent Mr. Bush two years ago.
The new version of the bill would apply only to companies that employ 50 or more persons -- a segment that House sponsors said includes only about 5 percent of U.S. businesses and about half the nation's total work force -- and to federal, state and local government workers.
No employees would be eligible unless they had worked at least 1,250 hours a year -- an average of about 25 hours a week.