Senate expects to update child care program without partisan rancor

McClatchy Washington BureauMarch 12, 2014 

— The Senate is expected to vote this week on an update of the child care subsidy program for low-income families that requires criminal background checks for the first time and more attention to the quality of care for infants and toddlers.

Child care can be a family’s second biggest expense, after housing, said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who worked out the details of the legislation in many meetings over more than two years with Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C.

“We knew we would like to spend more money, but that was limited,” Mikulski said at a news conference Tuesday. “But we could expand quality, and that’s where we put our energies.”

Burr said the bill was important to the 1.6 million families nationwide who qualified for the vouchers.

“It gives them the assurance that when they drop their kids off, those individuals they left them with are high quality, that the facility is safe and, more importantly, that there’s not a child care person there who’s committed a severe felony,” North Carolina’s senior senator said.

Debate is set for Wednesday and Thursday. In a departure from the way things have worked in recent years as the chamber has become bogged down in partisan squabbling, the bill has gone through “regular order.”

That refers to what had long been the usual legislative procedure of following rules and customs, with information-gathering hearings, debate and votes in the appropriate committees and then in the full Senate. There also will be an opportunity for senators to offer amendments on the Senate floor.

“We hope the open amendment process works, which is the old-school way of doing it,” Mikulski said. “We’ll see. This is the first bill in a really long time to use this process.”

The legislation is the first update of the Child Care and Development Block Grant Act since 1996. The funds have been continued annually, but the revision gives Congress a chance to make changes in the way the money is used.

New elements in the legislation include a provision that would allow parents to work overtime and not be penalized by the loss of a voucher because of the temporary pay bump. States would be required for the first time to set aside 3 percent of their funding to improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers, provide health and safety training for caregivers and inspect day care centers annually.

“Overall I believe we can be proud of this legislation because it stays true to the original principles of the 1996 welfare reform of encouraging employment, providing choice through vouchers and with maximum state flexibility on how children are served throughout our nation,” Burr said.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said that when the bill was last revised, child care was seen as something that helped parents work. Now there’s much more attention to the importance of early learning for children from birth to age 5, he said.

The bill had been due for a revision since 2002. Burr and Mikulski decided to tackle it in 2011, when Mikulski was the Democratic chair and Burr the ranking Republican on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee’s Children and Families Subcommittee.

The two senators met many times for more than two years and convened more than 100 meetings with stakeholders. The committee held three hearings about the legislation and passed it unanimously.

Burr and Mikulski credited their longtime, cordial relationship for getting the bill completed.

His “concern for vulnerable populations is one of his signature issues,” Mikulski said.

Burr said his Democratic counterpart was determined to get the bill finished.

“People get out of her way and they take her seriously,” he said. “I had a great partner.”

Mikulski said that if the bill were successful in a final vote scheduled for Thursday, Burr and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. _ another Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee member and bill supporter _ would urge Republicans in the House of Representatives to pass it there.

The noncontroversial child care grants and Burr and Mikulski’s successful collaboration give Republicans and Democrats in the Senate a chance to agree on something for a change.

“It’s not magic to do the job,” Mikulski said. “What the secret sauce is, actually, starting with mutual respect, identifying mutual needs and trying to find the sensible center, using courtesy and civility in the way we went about it.”

Email: rschoof@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @reneeschoof.

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