Clinton wins back rapport with voters: The President has won praise for his help for families but babysitters are still proving to be a problem

PRESIDENT Bill Clinton went some way yesterday towards repairing his honeymoon with the voters, damaged by the row over homosexuals in the military, by signing into law a bill giving workers the right to take time off for family emergencies.

Signed by the President in the White House rose garden, the Family and Medical Leave Act is the first piece of legislation to emerge from the administration and was hailed as a symbol of the ending of the political gridlock that beset Washington during the Reagan-Bush years.

The Act was approved in the Senate late on Thursday night by a lopsided, bipartisan vote of 71 to 27 and shortly afterwards in the House of Representatives, also by a wide margin. Significantly, an attempt by Republican senators to attach an amendment to thwart Mr Clinton's proposals to end the ban on homosexuals in the military was overwhelmingly defeated.

'It was America's families who have beaten the gridlock in Washington to pass family leave,' the President said at the televised signing ritual. He was introduced to the microphones by a mother from Georgia who lost her job last year when her daughter was diagnosed as suffering from cancer.

Though modest by some European standards, the Act is an important departure in US social policy. It will allow workers to take up to 12 weeks' unpaid leave to attend to eventualities such as illness, birth and adoption. On returning to work, they will be guaranteed the same job or an equivalent and employers will have been paying medical insurance.

Adding to the symbolism of the bill's passage, achieved just 16 days into the new administration, is the memory that an almost identical version tossed around Congress over the past seven years was twice vetoed by President Bush on the grounds that it would be too expensive for business.

'Now millions of our people will no longer have to choose between their jobs and their families,' Mr Clinton said. 'I know that men and women are more productive when they are sure they won't lose their jobs because they're trying to be good parents.'

Mr Clinton made plain that he does not mean to stop at the Act, listing welfare reform, child immunisation campaigns, enforcement of child support laws and new tax credits for working parents as other measures envisaged to help American families. 'There is a lot more we need to do,' he said.

Among the many Democrats celebrating the perceived breakthrough was Senator Edward Kennedy, a long-time proponent of the leave bill. 'What a difference an election makes. Gridlock, I think, is really over,' he declared. 'This is really government at its best.'

The outlook for Mr Clinton is certainly happier than a week ago, when the row over homosexuals was at its height. The vote against the Republican amendment suggests that after the compromise cooling-off period of six months the President may have relatively little difficulty in formally repealing the ban on homosexuals in the military.

Meanwhile it has emerged that Mr Clinton and his cabinet members have been guided by professionals in the art of emotional bonding. Two experts, known as 'facilitators', were hired for an exercise in 'human resource development' at a gathering of the cabinet at the presidential retreat at Camp David last weekend.

The purpose was to nurture trusting relationships within the new team. No one is telling whether the participants had to sit cross-legged in a circle or if any hugging was involved, but the main point of the session was for each member to relate to their colleagues one pivotal event in their life that would otherwise not be in the public domain.

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