Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, added fuel to his fight for his parental leave bill Tuesday by attracting the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Hatch's American Family Protection Act, introduced last February, is designed to allow workers up to a six-year maternal leave and up to a two-year sickness leave from their jobs.Employers would have to re-hire them at the first available opening - but would not have to keep their jobs open.

Chamber President Richard L. Lesher noted his group has opposed all similar bills in the past. But he said Hatch's version "gives a preferred rehire right, similar to veterans' rehire, rather than making leave a mandated benefit with automatic reinstatement."

Hatch's bill is an alternate to a Democratic-backed parental leave bill, which passed Congress last year but was vetoed by President Bush. Democrats hope that after gains in last year's election, they now have enough votes to pass their bill and override a possible veto.

Hatch says the difference between his bill and the Democrats' is flexibility vs. mandates.

"Our bill does not impose one-size-fits-all regulations and their attendant costs on employers," Hatch said. Instead it works on the basis of giving both the employee and employer more flexibility, he said.

For example, one of the major differences between the two bills is the amount of time allowed to be taken for maternal leave. With Hatch's bill, the mother can have up to a six-year unpaid leave, while the other bill allows for only a 12-week unpaid leave.

The catch, however, is that with the Family Protection Act the leaving employee is only granted a preferential rehire, instead of - as it is with the Medical Leave Act - a guaranteed rehire.

Hatch explained that preferential rehire is simply when an employee wants to go back to work, her name is placed at the top of the waiting list and if an opening comes up, and she is qualified, she gets the job first.

"As a family man, as a father of six children and now almost 12 grandchildren . . . I'd much rather have up to six years for a parent to bond with that child than a mere 12 weeks, which is not adequate," Hatch said.

Lesher added that the flexibility in Hatch's bill "allows an employer to plan for and maintain the necessary staff to function efficiently rather than having to hold a job open or fill it with a temporary employee."

The Family Research Council, another proponent of the Family Protection bill, applauded Hatch for the flexible six-year maternal leave, which would include adopted children as well as natural-born.

The council gave statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau showing that only 3.2 percent of all mothers return to paid work less than one month after their first birth, and that 67.1 percent are still home after 12 weeks. Additionally, 47.5 percent of first-time mothers do not work for pay at all during the newborn's first year.

"Bonding between parent and children or the care of a seriously ill relative does not often fit into a statutory time frame," Hatch said.