Senate Democrats are advancing legislation to beef up equal pay protections for women, the latest salvo in the election-year battle for women voters.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) is set to file cloture Thursday on the Paycheck Protection Act, which would strengthen protections for women who sue for pay discrimination. The move puts Republicans in an uncomfortable position as they work to repair their weak brand image with women voters ahead of the November election.
Five female Democratic senators talked up the bill Wednesday afternoon during a Capitol briefing — and made clear they intend to hammer Republicans as anti-women if they stand in its way.
“As I look at the record of Republicans on women, it is not good,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). “Personally I say it’s a war on women, and the more they protest it the more I say it. Because I really, truly believe it. They filibustered the Paycheck Fairness Act before. They left millions of women out of the Violence Against Women Act. They launched repeated attacks on women’s health including denying affordable access to birth control. They want to criminalize a woman’s right to choose. And they tried to repeal health reform, which prohibits discrimination because of gender — not to mention, makes investments in prevention.”
The legislation, spearheaded by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), aims to build on the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act by protecting women from retaliation if they sue for equal pay. It would also narrow the criteria under which an employer can defend pay disparities and enlist the Department of Labor to help eliminate gender-based pay gaps.
Beneath the effort is an ongoing debate as to why, as Census data shows, women earn 77 cents for every dollar men make. Progressives say it’s a product of institutional discrimination while conservatives chalk it up to differences in career choices. Studies suggest that women are likely to earn less than men across professions, although part of the overall gap is caused by career decisions and the fact that women tend to take more time off for children.
“The Paycheck Fairness Act isn’t just about women, and it’s not just about fairness. It is about the economy,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), a member of the Democratic leadership. “When women are not paid what they deserve, middle class families and communities pay the price.”
Republican aides declined to comment for this article. The GOP blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act bill in November 2010, when Senate Democrats were unable to overcome a unanimous Republican filibuster. Senate GOP women who had voted for Lily Ledbetter argued at the time that the PFA would expose small businesses to excessive lawsuits and impose new costs and restrictions in a tough economic climate.
This time, however, the Democrats’ large advantage with women voters makes it riskier for Republicans to stand in the way of the bill. Whatever their rationale, Democrats will tar them with a frequent refrain that has frustrated the GOP and its presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
“They say they didn’t launch a war on women,” Boxer said Wednesday, “so we’re giving them a chance to walk this back.”
Sahil Kapur is a congressional reporter for TPM. He previously covered politics and public policy for numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. He can be reached at sahil [at] talkingpointsmemo.com.