PARENTAL leave, a social issue left over from last year, is chugging through Congress, waiting for its chance to switch onto the legislative fast track. A pending bill would require companies with more than 50 employees to offer their workers up to 10 weeks of unpaid leave when they have a newborn or adopt a child, or when they must care for a seriously ill child or parent.
The bill would guarantee that workers would get their jobs back when they completed their leave time.
When Congress returns from Easter recess in early April, the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee will consider and presumably approve the measure.
The House now appears likely to vote on it the following month - probably around Mother's Day, for fitting symbolism.
One of the few Republicans outspokenly in favor of the bill is Rep. Marge Roukema of New Jersey. She says unpaid parental leave provides job security and ``is just such a bedrock family issue I can't see why anybody would deny it.''
But opponents of the bill, like business groups, say that such leave might seriously harm smaller businesses and that, in any case, it should not be mandated by the federal government.
Whether there are enough votes to approve the measure is dubious. For one thing, even Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado, the prime sponsor of the House measure, has expressed concern about the number of votes it will receive.
For another, even if Congress were to approve it, President Bush might well veto it. Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole recently said that she would recommend that he do so.
That's why Republicans like Mrs. Roukema are in a key position. To turn the measure into law they need either to persuade the White House to sign the measure or enough congressional Republicans to support it to override a veto - assuming that it passes Congress in the first place.
Roukema has requested a meeting with White House aides, including chief of staff John Sununu. ``I hope I get an open door,'' she says. ``Certainly I am going to make every effort to have my say.''
She says that Secretary Dole's veto recommendation ``was quite a disappointment to me.''
Will enough Republicans support the bill to ensure passage and permit a veto override?
``It's still an open question'' as to how many GOP votes the bill would receive, Roukema says. Then she makes clear that only public pressure can push many of her fellow Republicans into supporting it. ``It will depend,'' she says, ``on how effectively'' interest groups ``raise this issue in the offices'' of representatives.
``As they make their opinions known,'' the congresswoman says, ``I think you're going to have more members coming in at the end.''
But one of the sharp criticisms of the measure is that, in the words of social scientist Douglas Besharov, ``the only people who can really afford to take unpaid parental leave are upper middle class.''
Mr. Besharov, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, voices a common charge: that poor and lower middle-income Americans, equally deserving of being able to strengthen family life by staying home with infants, would be unable to do so because they cannot go without a paycheck.
Unions, long strong supporters of the concept, have a different perspective. Union official Gerald McEntee has testified that last year 72 of his union's existing labor contracts, covering more than 600,000 workers, included maternity or parental leave with a guarantee of continued employment.
Mr. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said many of his members earn less than $15,000, and ``the overwhelming majority'' less than $30,000.