The bipartisan legislation, which passed by a 97-1 vote, would also require annual state inspections of child care centres. At issue is the $5 billion-plus spent annually to help provide care to 1.6 million children, many of whom are in single-parent households. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, cast the "no" vote.
Supporters of the legislation, designed to expand access to federally subsidized child care and improve its quality, say such care is a vital means to allow parents of modest means to stay in the workforce.
"For working families who live below the poverty line, the cost of childcare can eat up more than 30 per cent of their monthly income," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. "For single parents, if you have only one income, it is an even bigger burden."
The bill would require providers to meet a range of health and safety standards, including first aid, CPR and prevention of child abuse and sudden infant death syndrome. The bill also would require annual inspections of licensed programs and require that day-care centres be inspected before they are opened. Nine states, including California, Massachusetts and Minnesota, do not require annual inspections.
The program sends block grants to states to help them provide vouchers to help low-income parents pay for child care. Costs have risen sharply since the program was consolidated under the 1996 welfare reform law.
The low-profile measure came to the Senate floor after the chamber has experienced much partisanship and rancour in recent years and has gotten away from routine floor debates and an open legislative process in which lawmakers are free to offer amendments. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said that "smaller bills like this one ... generate good feelings on both sides of the aisle. They show younger members that we really can legislate; they haven't seen too much of that because there hasn't been too much. And it helps break down the mistrust."
Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said other bipartisan candidates for floor action include legislation backed by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Lee, to ease federal mandatory minimum sentence laws for non-violent drug offences and legislation by Sens. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to boost energy efficiency.
Thursday's measure would add flexibility so that smaller fluctuations in income don't disqualify parents from receiving subsidies and makes it easier for homeless families to qualify even though they may have lost access to some required documents. It is also aimed at making sure day care workers are trained in CPR, fire prevention, and sanitation practices and ways to prevent sudden infant death syndrome. It also encourages better nutrition practices and more exercise at child care centres.
The measure now goes to the House, where Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said "I look forward to a productive discussion as we work to find common ground and complete the reauthorization of this important program."