Lagging in polls, Bush now offers to compromise on family leave

September 17, 1992|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, whose re-election campaign is apparently losing ground with moderates, signaled his distress yesterday by offering for the first time to compromise on legislation that would mandate family leave benefits.

In an apparent bid to control political damage from his promised veto of a congressional family leave bill, Mr. Bush offered $500 million in tax incentives to encourage small businesses to voluntarily grant their workers unpaid time off for family emergencies.

But the Bush option was found lacking even by sympathetic Republicans.

"I'm very disappointed," said Rep. Marge Roukema, a New Jersey Republican who has been trying unsuccessfully for months to meet personally with Mr. Bush on the issue. "This is no compromise. It ignores the basic issue of establishing a minimum labor standard."

The congressional bill would require businesses with 50 or more employees to offer workers 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for newborns, newly adopted children or seriously ill family members. It has strong support in swing, blue-collar ethnic districts like Mrs. Roukema's, where the stultified economy is much more of an issue than the president's appeal to "family values."

A new survey shows Mr. Bush has made some progress over the past six weeks in solidifying his conservative, mostly Republican base, but those gains may have come at the cost of moderate votes Mr. Bush also needs to win re-election.

While the presidential contest appears to have tightened since mid-summer, according to a poll released yesterday by the Times-Mirror Center, Democrat Bill Clinton still holds a 15 percentage point lead and his backers say their support has grown stronger.

Among the vital groups of his 1988 supporters that Mr. Bush desperately needs to lure back into the fold -- such as voters under 30, people with college education and white Catholics -- less than one-third said they felt comfortable with the president's right-wing appeal.

"Most of my constituents are Republican, but they are worried about President Bush," Rep. Roukema explained. "They want him to win but they don't understand why he opposes things like [the family leave legislation]. I think the pro-business lobbyists have got him backed into a very uncomfortable corner."

Congress sent its Family and Medical Leave Act to the White House yesterday. Mr. Bush complained that it was "very peculiar and highly political" for the Democratic leadership to wait this late in the election year to renew the fight over unpaid leaves.

The president declared himself in favor of family leave during the 1988 campaign, but he says he opposes a federal mandate because it might impose such a hardship on employers that they would have to lay off workers. The Bush bill would cover businesses with fewer than 500 employees.

Mr. Bush also vetoed a family leave measure in 1990. Asked why the president didn't offer his tax incentive proposal then, Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman, said the president tried, but the Democratic leaders of Congress "refused to discuss anything that was not mandated."

Mrs. Roukema, a GOP leader on the issue, said she was unaware of any sign that the White House was willing to compromise on the issue.

"We've been here," she said. "Nobody's come to us."

The Times-Mirror survey showed that with the exception of the religious right, Mr. Bush appears to have made little headway with what had until recently been the central theme of his campaign beginning with the Republican National Convention in August.

The only two categories of voters with whom the president is now leading are white Protestants and Southern white males.

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