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Plan advances to create Space Force, parental leave for federal workers

The orange glow of the setting sun reflects off the west side of the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By JEFF STEIN | The Washington Post | Published: December 10, 2019

WASHINGTON Key congressional lawmakers announced their support Monday evening for a defense bill that would create both Space Force and paid parental leave for more than 2 million federal workers, as signs of Republican opposition to the measure appeared to fade.

House and Senate negotiators in both major parties said they would back the bill granting $658 billion to the Department of Defense and other defense programs, a measure that includes dozens of national security provisions prioritized by the armed services.

However, the measure faced at least some new opposition from liberals in Congress who quickly announced they would be voting against the legislation over its provisions related to U.S. support for Saudi-led efforts in Yemen, which has earned bipartisan rebuke and led to one of the world's deadliest humanitarian crises.

In a major deal struck late last week, the White House and congressional Democrats agreed to create Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. military in exchange for new parental-leave benefits for the federal workforce as part of the must-pass defense package. If approved, it would be the biggest victory for federal employees in nearly 30 years.

"Including paid family leave is a victory for all workers because it will help push more employers in the right direction and ensure more workers get paid family leave," Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement. "Expanding access to paid family leave helps the health and economic well-being of individuals who have it and strengthens the ability of employers to retain their workers."

The agreement would provide the biggest benefit to federal employees since the Clinton era, when Congress passed legislation in 1993 allowing them to use sick leave to care for family members with medical problems or for bereavement.

Since then, the government has beefed up health benefits for the civilian workforce of 2.1 million people with long-term care insurance and dental and vision coverage but employees must pay the premiums for those policies, albeit at discounted group rates.

It would bring federal workers parity with military families, who were granted up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave under a policy established in 2016 by then-Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.

The biggest remaining hurdle to the compromise has appeared to be Senate Republicans, who earlier this year rejected a measure to establish similar benefits for federal workers.

But as of Monday afternoon, at least before the bill text was released, most in the Senate GOP caucus appeared prepared to approve the plan. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the committee that oversees government affairs, said he opposed the expansion of the federal benefit but does not expect to be able to stop it.

"I think it's a done deal," Johnson said, adding that the provision has key national security measures he thinks should be approved. He added of the leave benefit: "I think it's unfortunate. I think it sets a very dangerous precedent."

Several other Republican senators including John Barrasso of Wyoming, Mitt Romney of Utah, and Roy Blunt of Missouri said they were prepared to support the deal reached between the White House and congressional Democrats.

"I don't think it stops the NDAA (National Defense Authorization Act) from passing. I'm certainly supportive of it," said Blunt, a member of Senate Republican leadership.

Still, some new opposition to the plan materialized from the left on Monday. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., almost immediately announced their opposition to the legislation, saying they would vote against it because it fails to restrict America's ability to help the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen.

The Senate last year voted by a 56 to 41 margin to rebuke Trump's support of Saudi Arabia, including by voting to end U.S. participation in that country's war in Yemen. A report last year found that 85,000 children have starved to death during the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, while American and British bombs have injured thousands, including women and children.

"Congress must vote against this disastrous Pentagon authorization a bill of astonishing moral cowardice," Sanders and Khanna said in a statement. "This bill does nothing to rein in out-of-control military spending, prevent unconstitutional war against Iran . . . or end the obscenity of innocent children in Yemen being killed by U.S. bombs."

The defense bill does include some restrictions related to U.S. military support for Saudi coalition fighter jets, a congressional aide said. The White House and Republican lawmakers were unwilling to budge on the Yemen provision, said this person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private details of the negotiations.
 

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