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Family Feud: Clinton, Dole Square Off Over Leave Law : At every chance, president still brags about act he signed in 1993. And his GOP rival still blasts it as intrusive, despite its popularity.


WASHINGTON — On Feb. 5, 1993, when a newly inaugurated President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, he lavishly praised several of the bill's Republican supporters, many of them in attendance, and declared grandly that the two parties had ended gridlock in the interest of American families.

One Republican missing from the sun-washed White House ceremony was then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole. From the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Dole scoffed at Clinton's claim that legislative gridlock had yielded to bipartisanship and grumbled, as he had over eight years of debate on the bill, that the law would cost American businesses untold millions.

More than three years later, the two politicians continue to square off over the Family and Medical Leave Act, which requires most companies to give an employee up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to tend to pressing family or medical needs.

About 12 million Americans have taken advantage of the act, according to a bipartisan commission established to review and report on its effect.

A survey conducted for the commission found that more than 70% of all workers believe every employee should have the option of taking the unpaid leave. As many as 95% of employers covered by the act have reported that it is easy to administer and has had no noticeable effect on the productivity, profitability and growth of their company. And roughly 4 in 10 working Americans believe they will take advantage of the act sometime in the next five years.

Dole continues to take potshots at the act, now using the platform of his Republican presidential bid. During recent campaign stops, he has charged that the law represents the "long arm of the federal government" and suggested that it should be abandoned in favor of leave policies negotiated between employers and employees.

At a rally Thursday in Florida, Dole repeated his criticism of the law, saying that although he supports the idea of workers being able to take time off to be with their families, "I've never understood why the federal government should tell you what the leave policy should be."

Dole also has continued to complain that the Family and Medical Leave Act is bad for business, especially small business, because of the hidden costs involved in lost worker productivity.

"It just sticks in his craw," said one Democratic congressional aide who watched the legislation's long march into law.

Republican pollster Ed Goeas argued that Dole's qualms about the act could appeal to voters if his message is carefully crafted. "That kind of micro-tinkering by government is always going to be suspect."

But Democrats, for their part, could not be more delighted that Dole has continued to hammer away at the law.

Democratic pollster Peter Hart called Dole's attack "political suicide" in light of recent polls showing that 82% of the public favors a requirement that companies give workers up to 12 weeks of emergency leave. Even among Republicans, Hart said, a poll conducted for NBC and the Wall Street Journal found 77% in favor of the act's provisions.

"It might be a nice philosophical discussion for a William Buckley television debate, but once you get it out in the real world with real people, there are no two sides to this issue," said Hart.

"I'm astounded [Dole] keeps saying he's for family values but not for family leave," said Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.), one of the law's principal authors. "The White House must be doing handsprings!

"This is why they have a gender gap that looks like the Grand Canyon," she said, referring to the large lead Clinton enjoys over Dole among female voters in various polls.

Regardless of the political spin surrounding the issue, it stands as one on which Dole's views are in stark contrast to Clinton's, who counts the act as one of his administration's chief accomplishments. Candidate Clinton mentions the law in nearly every stump speech, saying that it is helping busy parents succeed both at work and at home.

Indeed, Clinton is intent on expanding the act, not abandoning it. During a campaign-style Family and Work symposium in June, Clinton proposed adding provisions to the act that would require employers to give workers up to 24 hours of unpaid leave to attend children's school functions.

In Congress, some Democrats are eager to go even further, extending coverage of the law to companies with 25 or fewer employees. The act now covers most workers in companies that employ 50 employees or more, or just over half of all American workers.

"It really is a classic example of the differences between my opponent and his party and me," said Clinton during a recent campaign stop Centralia, Wash. "I signed it; he led the fight against it. I brag on it; he says we still made a mistake to sign it. Now you be the judge."

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