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Sen. Tammy Duckworth On How Her Daughter Helped Shape Her Views On Family Policy


The office of Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth looks like a lot of senators' offices - high ceilings, framed press clippings, gifts from constituents. Sitting in the corner of this office, though, is something you don't often see on Capitol Hill - a white bassinet with frilly trim.

I love that this is right here right in your office.

TAMMY DUCKWORTH: It is, you know, and people are just going to have to deal with it (laughter). That's just the way it is.

KELLY: Duckworth is the first sitting U.S. senator to give birth. Her daughter, Maile Pearl, was born in April. Duckworth went back to work full time in July promising also to keep up her duties as diaper changer in chief.

Oh, and, gosh, there's a changing table over here, too. This is brilliant.

DUCKWORTH: Yes, that's an actual - actually - that red cart is actually an aviation tool cart that we repurposed (laughter).

KELLY: Multipurpose - and you got the Diaper Genie. You're set.

DUCKWORTH: Yep. We're set.

KELLY: That aviation cart speaks to Duckworth's time as an Army National Guard helicopter pilot. Duckworth lost both her legs in combat in the Iraq War in 2004. When we met up with the senator in her office today, she, like so many of us working mothers, had been juggling child care for Maile and her older sister, Abigail.

DUCKWORTH: The nanny last night said I'd rather take care of them at your house. I can meet you there at 9:30, which is why I'm running a little flustered, a little bit late. I would have had them in here with me.

KELLY: Not only does Duckworth's infant daughter spend time at the office with mom, she made history when, dressed in a duckling onesie, Maile was the first newborn allowed on the Senate floor.

You had to push through a rule change...


KELLY: ...To bring an infant onto the Senate floor when Maile was born in April, a rule change that prompted some pushback from some of your colleagues. I noticed Kansas Senator Pat Roberts saying this isn't necessary. Utah Senator Orrin Hatch reportedly asked, but what if there are 10 babies on the Senate floor? What'd you tell them?

DUCKWORTH: That would be wonderful because there would be more women in the Senate, and we would actually maybe have a more representative form of government if we had more women here. I mean, it's funny. One of my colleagues also asked what the dress code for the baby would be.

KELLY: Yeah.

DUCKWORTH: And I said, seriously?

KELLY: Because you have to wear a jacket.

DUCKWORTH: You have to wear a jacket, yes. And I said, probably a onesie, but I could put her in a blazer if you needed me to. I mean, the most ridiculous questions. But it was really interesting where I got support. You know, Amy Klobuchar, who's the ranking on the Senate Rules Committee for Democrats, she was super supportive and really pushed this through. But on the other hand, you had folks who really stepped forward and said, hey, I support this. Marco Rubio came up to me and said...

KELLY: I was going to ask if the guys had stepped forward, too.

DUCKWORTH: Yeah. It was really - it was almost generational. The younger members totally got it - wished that they could have brought their children onto the floor themselves.

KELLY: Well - and I loved that part of the role change was a male senator will, going forward, be allowed to bring a bottle onto the Senate floor if they need to be feeding their infant at the same time.

DUCKWORTH: Exactly, yes.

KELLY: So that'll be the next step in history that's made at some point down the road. How often have you ended up bringing her to work?

DUCKWORTH: You know, she's been coming in - since she was 10 days old was the first vote. During my maternity leave, maybe every third week or so she came in with me. I did - the first week back off maternity leave brought her in every day, but I found that was more for me than for her. That was more for mommy who really needed her around, and I was going through that terrible separation anxiety. And, really, she was happier at home, more comfortable with a nanny watching her there. But we have everything set up here, so when we have long nights, she does come in.

KELLY: How have you managed breastfeeding?

DUCKWORTH: It's tough. It's tough, and I'm going through a little bit of I guess mourning period right now. I'm breastfeeding, but mostly I'm having to pump breast milk every three hours for her. And because I'm not with her since I've been back at work, she's slowly rejecting the breast. And so she's still drinking breast milk, but she prefers the bottle to the breast now, which is very common among working women.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, I said you're back at work full time as of July.


KELLY: But you never took a full maternity leave - is that right? - because you wouldn't have been able to vote.

DUCKWORTH: Right. Technically, I could not take leave because then you forfeit your right to vote and your right to introduce legislation. But I was home for 12 weeks, and, as I said, I came in maybe once a week, and I got my binder every week that I read up on everything and made decisions and sent it back to my staff.

KELLY: The month that you had Maile, April, USA Today ran an article, and the headline was "The Senate celebrates Senator Tammy Duckworth, abandons America's other moms." I mean, the article was making a couple of points. One, it was saying good on you, but this shouldn't have taken so long for this to be the first in 2018, and it shouldn't be so hard for all the women out there who aren't U.S. senators.

DUCKWORTH: I could not agree more. I could not agree more. No. 1, it's ridiculous that it's 2018 and now we finally have the first senator giving birth. It shows that we don't have enough representation. We don't have enough women in the Senate. And second, we should have had a family leave policy, a national family leave policy, decades ago.

KELLY: This is the other point this article made. It asked, where's our national paid leave policy? So where's our national paid leave policy?

DUCKWORTH: Well, I'm co-sponsoring one with Senator Gillibrand. It actually would allow you to put away $1.50 a week, and your employer puts away $1.50 a week. So it's a couple hundred dollars a year. And that would be an insurance plan that would provide you with 12 weeks paid family leave, whether it's for the birth of a child, adoption, to take care of a sick family member. This is more than just a feel-good women's issue. This is really an economic issue in my book because we're losing some of our brightest talents, either from the workplace or they're actually going to foreign countries because there is better support for professional women.

KELLY: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting because paid parental leave has been an issue that Democrats have owned in the past. Recently, we've seen Republicans engaging on it. Marco Rubio, your colleague here in the Senate from Florida, has authored legislation. His bill would allow parents to receive Social Security benefits early in order to take at least two months off. What do you think of it? Do you support that?

DUCKWORTH: I don't support that because you're then robbing from your retirement. You're taking your retirement money from Social Security and using it to support your families. I think our families are more important than that. I think we should have a national paid family leave plan period. And you shouldn't have to, as a worker, decide do I rob for my retirement to take care of my children now, or do I struggle now and maybe not provide my children the support that they need in order to have a retirement?

KELLY: But if you're not going to get everything you want and Democrats at the moment don't control either house of Congress, is there some value to compromising and getting something working with Republicans?

DUCKWORTH: Well, I think the compromise is this legislation that workers would actually pay. Instead of being completely supported by either government or support completely by employers, the FAMILY Act would actually say that workers would have to pay into this and it would be an insurance plan. So it's very much self-driven. And I think that that is a very viable plan.

KELLY: Do you have Republican co-sponsors?

DUCKWORTH: We're looking for one. We're looking for some. Now, I will tell you that...

KELLY: I mean, that's the challenge, right?

DUCKWORTH: That's the challenge.

KELLY: There's got to be some.

DUCKWORTH: Well, you know, I have a little experience with this when it comes to leave of military family members. We were actually able to push through some changes. When I first became a congresswoman, I was appalled to discover that military women had to go back on duty six weeks after giving birth, even if they had a caesarean, even if that duty station was Afghanistan in a combat zone. And so I was able to spearhead with the help of my Republican colleagues changes in the Pentagon's rules. So we can do this. We can compromise, and if we can get the military to do it, we can certainly do it for the rest of the country.

KELLY: Senator Tammy Duckworth, thank you for your time.

DUCKWORTH: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMUNE AND MUJO'S "DETROIT STREETS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.