All in the Family: Does the U.S. Need to Expand Medical Leave?

It's a decision faced by nearly every working parent: how long can they afford to be away from work after the birth of a child?

In worldwide survey, ABC News' 20/20 program found that of 168 countries in the world, only four offer no national maternity-leave program: Lesotho, Swaziland, Papua New Guinea and the United States.

Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., would like to change that.

Dodd, a veteran Democrat who is running for president on a "fresh face-plus-experience" platform, announced on Thursday that he will sponsor controversial legislation that would broaden the Family and Medical Leave Act to include six weeks of paid medical leave.

"Everyday, parents are forced to choose between the job and income they need and the family they love," the Senator proclaimed at a Capitol Hill press conference announcing his proposal.

The new legislation, which Dodd said he hopes to introduce in the Senate in the next few weeks, would allow U.S. workers to take at least six weeks off and still be paid -- to have a baby, take care of a newly adopted child, recover from an illness, or take care of a sick child or family member.

Noting that his own five-year-old daughter, Grace, was sick this morning, Dodd said he understands the difficult decision parents must make between work and family.

"They ought never to be put in that position, in my point-of-view," he said. "This is the 21st century and we ought to be able to do better."

However, Sen. Dodd said he anticipated the Bush administration will oppose expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act.

"We're spending $8 billion a month in Iraq," Dodd claimed. "Just give me one month (of that money) and we'll be in better shape."

Positive Reception from Women and Family Advocates

The new legislation is being applauded by women and family advocates who say the current laws leave 40 percent of private sector workers out in the cold.

"A lot of workers who need it the most can't afford to take it because it's unpaid leave and they can't afford to go without a paycheck," said Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.

"It's been more than a decade since we've passed a law that would really give the families the support they need in the struggles they face day to day," she said.

The Connecticut Democrat authored the original Family and Medical Leave Act fourteen years ago, which the National Partnership for Women & Families says has allowed 50 million workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave if they are ill or need to care for a family member or new child.

"I've probably dedicated a quarter of a century of service to these child and family issues," said Sen. Dodd. "It's an issue that I've cared about for a long time."

Dodd first introduced parental and medical leave in 1986, but the bill was shelved when Pres. Ronald Reagan threatened to veto it. The bill was introduced a second time and passed in 1990, but Pres. George H.W. Bush vetoed it in June 1990.

President Clinton signed the Family and Medical Leave Act into law in February 1993 -- the first piece of legislation he signed as president.

"Family and medical leave is a matter of pure common sense and a matter of common decency," said President Clinton at the bill signing. "Never again will parents have to fear losing their jobs because of their families," he added.

Senator Anticipates Political Resistance

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