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A bill that would expand family leave rights for people caring for wounded service members is now speeding its way through Congress on a path that appears likely to end with a presidential veto.
Legislation to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to allow a relative to take up to six months of unpaid leave to care for a wounded veteran was attached to the Children's Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act, HR 976. The House passed the bill Tuesday and the Senate expects to pass it before the end of the week.
Putting the military-related legislation into that bill allowed for quick passage, but it also may have doomed the proposal, at least temporarily, as President Bush has vowed to veto the children's health bill because it is overly generous by his standards.
Still, supporters of the military family leave proposal said getting the legislation through the House and Senate is a major endorsement of a proposal that could help many families who risk losing their civilian jobs if they take too much time off work to care for a wounded combat veteran.
A Bush veto of the children's health bill would delay expansion of military family leave but would not end prospects for its passage. Three Senate Democrats running for their party's presidential nomination — Hillary Clinton of New York, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Barack Obama of Illinois — are trying to get similar legislation attached to the 2008 defense authorization bill, which would create another opportunity to make it law.
However, that bill also faces the potential of a veto threat because of various disputes, none of which directly involves the family leave initiative. The idea was endorsed by a bipartisan presidential commission that studied problems facing wounded combat veterans and their families.
"Members of military families should never have to risk losing their jobs in order to meet the needs of their loved ones, and with this bill, we are one step closer to fulfilling our promise to them," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif, who heads the House Education and Labor Workforce Protections subcommittee, which held a hearing on the bill last week.
Under the approved legislation, which lawmakers are calling the Support for Injured Servicemembers Act, spouses, parents, children or next of kin of service members who suffered serious injury or illness while on active duty could get up to six months of unpaid leave, in addition to vacation, personal or sick leave, to help with the care of the injured service member. Employers could require certification of how the time off was used.
Current law provides only 12 weeks of unpaid leave and does not extend the time off to parents, siblings or other relatives who could end up being the closest living kin of a severely wounded service member.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Congress needs to help the families.
"No group of Americans has stood stronger and braver for our nation than those who have served in the armed forces. How we repay the service of our veterans speaks volumes about our national character," she said.
The choice facing military families with severely wounded veterans was driven home to lawmakers last week in testimony before Woolsey's subcommittee by Sarah Wade, the wife of retired Army Staff Sgt. Ted Wade.
She described being fired from her job for taking too much time off to help with her husband's medical care and visits to military and veterans' hospitals for treatment of the severe injuries he suffered in Iraq.
"Due to the nature of his injuries, someone had to be with Ted every step of the way to oversee his medical care," Sarah Wade said.