GOP Lawmakers Take Aim at Clinton Child-Care Initiative


For many Republican lawmakers, a battle against President Clinton’s child-care initiative is a no-win proposition that could spell disaster at election time. But the way Sen. Dan Coats (R-Ind.) figures it, Clinton’s package has a fatal flaw, and Republicans should not shy from pointing it out.

“The president’s proposal is designed so parents can spend less time, not more, with their children,” Coats says. But parents, he adds, “are not looking to spend less time with their kids. They’re looking to spend more.”

Accordingly, Coats and other GOP lawmakers are crafting a welter of initiatives that they hope will position them as champions of most American working families. When they cast the debate in their terms, they like the numbers.


For starters, the Republicans plan to lambaste Clinton’s approach for offering an unfair break to American families with two working parents and children in day care. That, according to the latest figures, represents just about a quarter of all preschoolers in the United States--a decided minority of American families.

Their strategy is to focus instead on the majority of families who have one parent at home, who rely on family members to care for their children or who split shifts so that either Mom or Dad is always available to look after the kids. Such families account for about three-quarters of all American pre-schoolers.

The $21.7-billion, five-year White House plan would make assistance available to 2 million children--twice the number now served by federal programs. Clinton called his package “the single largest national commitment to child care” in the nation’s history when he introduced it on Jan. 7.

The initial response from congressional Republicans was notably muted.

“It’s an election year, and Republicans feel vulnerable on women’s issues,” sighed one Republican staff member. “You can just visualize the anti-kids label your opponents could run in their ads. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be on the other side of that.”

Now, Republicans are ready to retake the offensive. In the Senate, conservatives such as Coats and moderates including James M. Jeffords of Vermont are crafting a counterproposal. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) named a pair of Republican women, Jennifer Dunn of Washington and Deborah Pryce of Ohio, to coordinate a strategy.


In both chambers, Republicans are focusing on Clinton’s lack of attention to families in which one parent--usually the mother--stays home.

“The president favors two-income families . . . and we don’t think federal policy should discriminate against those couples who decide that one will stay home for child-caring and child-rearing purposes,” says California Rep. Frank Riggs (R-Windsor). “We’re concerned the president’s proposal reflects a bias against the more traditional American family, where one spouse remains at home for child-care purposes.”

As a result, Republicans across the political spectrum are dusting off tax packages that would give breaks to such two-parent, single-earner families. One way to do that, said those involved in the negotiations, is to compute the single income of such families as if it were earned by two workers. The practice is called “income splitting,” and it would drive many such single-earner families into lower tax brackets.

Beyond that, Republicans such as Riggs blame the growing tax burden shouldered by American families for propelling the trend toward so many two-earner households. If Republicans can drive down the tax burden on all families, they reason, they will allow many mothers to do what they tell pollsters they would like to do if they could afford it: stay home and care for their children.

While Republicans are cautious about saying so, their argument suggests that cutting families’ tax burdens would be a child-care initiative of a different sort: By lifting the financial necessity for both parents to work, it would put one parent back in the home. And that would staunch the need for new day-care centers.

That reasoning has helped fuel new calls among Republicans for family tax breaks.

Less than a year after Congress approved it in the first place, many Republicans are urging a further sweetening of the $500-per-child tax credit. That, they argue, would fit two key GOP objectives: It would give a break to all parents--not just those who use day care--and it would let taxpayers decide how to use their newly returned money.

Beyond that, many Republicans hope they can stop a costly new government program and breathe life instead into a series of controversial workplace reforms.

Key among them is a compensatory-time bill that would give hourly workers and their employers greater latitude in negotiating flexible workweeks and paid time off instead of overtime pay. The measure was approved last year by the House. But Senate Democrats have stalled the bill’s progress, charging that such a change in labor law would hurt many families who rely on overtime pay.

Beyond the comp-time measure, Coats suggested variations on President Clinton’s proposal, which would set aside $500 million in tax credits for companies that help their employees with child-care services.

“What about tax breaks for companies that establish more flexible work hours for mothers with small children?” he asks. “For those who agree to [giving them] priority in scheduling, for those who set up telecommuting and job-sharing arrangements? If we’re going to look at tax breaks for businesses, we ought to be looking at these.”

But for all their consensus on alternatives, Republicans remain divided over one key issue: What will they say to the president’s package?

Many Republican moderates, including Jeffords in the Senate and Pryce and Dunn in the House, are urging support for some of Clinton’s proposals. But in the House, especially, the “just say no” sentiment runs strong among many conservatives, who argue that as an expansion of government programs, Clinton’s proposal should be dismissed out of hand.

“The real question is, when you finally get down to making a deal, are we going to give the president some of what he wants in this area in order to get some tax cuts,” says Rep. Clay E. Shaw Jr. (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on human resources. Gender politics, Shaw adds, “is something we’re always in trouble on. But I would hope we wouldn’t get into any further expansion of the federal government or spending.”