The Senate has approved an amendment reducing the number of businesses that would have to offer job-protected leave to workers with medical problems or parental responsibilities.

But the ultimate fate of the Family and Medical Leave Act remained in doubt Tuesday as the Senate debated the merits of mandating rather than encouraging employers to offer the benefit. Also hanging was an amendment to toughen penalties for offenses involving child pornography and obscenity.The bill sponsored by Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., would require employers of 50 or more people to offer at least 10 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to seriously ill employees or those with newborn, newly adopted or seriously ill children.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., said employers should be encouraged rather than required to respond sensitively to family needs, and said he would propose a tax incentive amendment with that aim.

Dodd's initial bill would have exempted only companies of under 20 and required that at least 13 weeks of medical leave be available.

Under the revised version, Dodd said, only 5 percent of U.S. companies would have to comply with the leave requirement. Reducing the amount of medical leave from 13 to 10 weeks also reduced the cost, he said, from $190 million to $160 million - $2.67 per employee per year.

"All this legislation says is that for 10 weeks every two years if you're confronted with a crisis, you don't lose your job," Dodd said. "I don't consider that to be an unreasonable idea. I think it's human decency. I think it's common sense."

Conservatives called parental leave a worthy, important benefit but said it shouldn't be imposed on employers.

Cochran branded the requirement "a very drastic departure from current practice, and it is not really necessary in trying to deal with the needs of a diverse and changing workforce . . . We should all be concerned about the impact it may have on other benefits that may be available."

"This will continue to make America less competitive," contended Sen. Steve Symms, R-Idaho. "Nothing is costless in this society. There's no free lunch."

Symms said there was no need for Congress to take up time on the leave issue at the end of a session, with other important bills awaiting action. "I don't believe the people of this country are in any kind of emergency situation," he said.

"We didn't get elected to go home," Dodd shot back. "I know these issues aren't easy. We weren't elected to the U.S. Senate to make everybody happy. If 51 of my colleagues don't like this idea, we'll go home."