WASHINGTON — Federal employees could receive four weeks of paid leave after the birth or adoption of a child under a proposal approved Thursday by the House.

The legislation, which would apply to most civilian Department of Defense employees but not servicemembers, comes as Congress is also considering three weeks of guaranteed leave for active-duty fathers when their new children arrive.

Currently, active-duty mothers are given six weeks of paid leave following the birth of a child, but only the Marine Corps guarantees paternity leave as well, and officials allow only 10 days of unpaid time off.

Lawmakers in the Senate approved the military paternity leave as part of the 2009 Defense Authorization Bill, but the measure will have to be approved by the House and survive negotiations between the two chambers later this year.

Meanwhile, House lawmakers cited the military’s maternal leave policy in debate on the federal employees policy change, noting that civilian defense employees must use sick time or forgo pay to stay home with a new child.

"But a military family, under existing law, can have someone stay home under paid leave," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif. "It’s unfair in one case to have one employee working next to another, both for the same government, and one is allowed to take paid leave and the other can’t."

Under current law, federal employees can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child without risk of losing their job. But proponents of the legislation said time without pay is not enough to keep many public servants from seeking new jobs with more generous leave policies.

"Many families cannot afford to take unpaid leave, and are therefore forced to choose between their child and their paycheck," said bill sponsor Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. "No one should have to make that choice."

Opponents criticized the projected cost of the plan — nearly $200 million a year once fully implemented — and the impact of giving federal employees more time away from work.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said more flexible sick time and donated leave policies would be less expensive than adding paid leave and would have less negative impact on federal offices’ production.

The measure passed by a 278-146 vote. Last week, a bipartisan group on Senate lawmakers headed by Virginia Democrat Sen. Jim Webb introduced similar legislation in that chamber.

The White House has publicly opposed the paternity leave plan.

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