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Vulnerable Republicans discover the value of liberal ideas

A top Democratic priority -- paid sick leave -- is quite popular with the American mainstream. GOP senators worried about re-election year have clearly noticed.
The dome of the Capitol is reflected in a puddle in Washington, Feb. 17, 2012.
The dome of the Capitol is reflected in a puddle in Washington, Feb. 17, 2012.
A little after 3 a.m. eastern this morning, the Republican-led Senate approved a far-right budget plan, slashing public investments and dismantling social-insurance programs like Medicare. The final vote, 52 to 46, did not come as a surprise -- the question was when, not if, GOP senators would approve their budget blueprint.
What did come as a surprise, however, was a vote late yesterday on a top progressive priority.
The reason it takes so long for the upper chamber to vote on a budget is that members introduce hundreds of proposed amendments -- 739, to be exact -- several dozen of which reach the floor as part of a process affectionately called the "vote-a-rama." The measures, like the budget itself, is non-binding, but members see value in getting senators on the record, voting up or down, on a wide range of priorities.
One of those measures was championed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who pushed a proposal for paid sick leave. Oddly enough, it passed -- and the way in which it passed tells an interesting story.

Just a few weeks ago, the Healthy Families Act -- which would allow employees to earn up to seven days of paid sick leave -- seemed like just another White House proposal doomed to die in the newly Republican Senate. But this afternoon, it gained a surprise vote of confidence: 61 senators voted for an amendment to the budget that would do essentially the same thing. That doesn't mean it will become law. Budget resolutions are not binding, so it's a largely symbolic move. But it's important: If family-friendly policies gain enough bipartisan support, they could end up substantially improving conditions for millions of workers who've long gone without any paid time off at all.

As the Washington Post piece makes clear, the finally tally wasn't particularly close: it passed with 61 votes, including 12 Republicans. In fact, every GOP incumbent who's worried about re-election next year -- Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) -- threw their support behind paid sick leave.
Yes, it was non-binding, but the broader salience of the vote was hard to miss: vulnerable Republicans sometimes see value in embracing progressive ideas. Paid sick leave may be a top priority for President Obama and congressional Democrats, but much of the GOP also realizes it's a very popular idea with the American mainstream.
In fact, note that when the vote was held yesterday afternoon, Johnson and Toomey initially opposed the amendment, but then changed their minds.
Will this encourage Murray and other Senate Dems to keep the focus on this idea in the coming months? You bet it will.
But the vote was also noteworthy in what it told us about the other 2016 contingent within the Republican Party: every GOP incumbent who wants to appear moderate voted for paid sick leave, but every Republican senator running for president voted against it. The former wants to appeal to a mainstream audience; the latter wants to pander to a far-right base that votes in early primary/caucus states.
As for the budget process, both the House and Senate have now passed budget blueprints. Members will meet in a conference committee to work out the differences. Soon after, the real fights will begin as the appropriations process begins in earnest.