Bloomberg News

Senate Republicans Block Plan to Reduce Gender Gap in Pay

June 05, 2012

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) and Lily Ledbetter hold a news conference at the U.S. Capitol June 5, 2012 in Washington, DC. Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Republicans in the U.S. Senate blocked Democrats’ latest proposal intended to attract women voters this election year, a measure to bolster workers’ ability to win pay-discrimination lawsuits.

The 52-47 vote today in Washington, with 60 required, didn’t advance the measure, which also would prohibit retaliation against workers who share wage information. All Republicans opposed the bill.

“For millions of American women, no amount of talent or dedication will bring pay equality with male co-workers,” Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor today. “In the minds of many employers, they simply aren’t equal.”

Democrats held the vote on the same day that Wisconsin voters are deciding whether to recall Republican Governor Scott Walker, who in April signed legislation repealing a 2009 law that permitted alleged victims of workplace discrimination to sue for punitive damages in state court.

Looking to the presidential and Senate elections in November, Democrats who control the Senate are seeking to attract the votes of women, especially single women, 70 percent of whom voted for President Barack Obama in 2008. Democratic backers of the Senate pay-equity bill are casting Republican opposition to the measure and Walker’s move as evidence that the party is hostile toward women.

Political Ploy

Women earn about 77 cents for every dollar earned by male workers, according to U.S. Census Bureau data on earnings for more than 95.5 million full-time, year-round U.S. workers older than 16. Fifty years ago, the pay disparity was 61 cents for women to a dollar for male workers, according to the data. The bill’s proponents say the pay gap shows the 1964 Equal Pay Act needs to be augmented.

Republicans called the Senate proposal a political ploy that would benefit trial lawyers while doing little, if anything, to advance equal pay.

“This is just a political exercise,” Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, told reporters today. “It’s offensive. Over and over, that’s all we’re doing this year is things that might protect Democrats.”

The bill, sponsored by Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat, would increase potential damages to plaintiffs in pay- discrimination suits and enhance the legal burden on employers to show that pay disparities aren’t gender-based. It would create a grant program to train women on how to negotiate with employers on their pay.

Similar Measure

A similar measure failed to advance in the Senate in 2010.

“American women are mad as hell; they are ready to fight,” Mikulski told reporters yesterday, adding that women “often face harassment, humiliation or retaliation” at work.

In an earlier effort to appeal to women voters, Reid, a Nevada Democrat, allowed a March 1 vote on a Republican proposal to let employers and insurers deny coverage for birth control and other health services that violate their religious beliefs.

The 51-48 defeat of the measure will be “very helpful” to Democrats in November, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s second-ranking Democrat, said at the time.

In April, Senate Democrats sought to reauthorize the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, which expired Oct. 1 with little fanfare. The Senate passed its measure April 26 with backing from 15 Republicans. House Republicans last month passed their version, including some provisions opposed by Democrats.

‘Make-or-Break’

Obama, in a statement after the vote, said it was “incredibly disappointing that in this make-or-break moment for the middle class, Senate Republicans put partisan politics ahead of American women and their families.” He said his administration “will continue to fight for a woman’s right for equal pay for equal work.”

Congressional Democrats this week called on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to endorse the measure and noted that the first bill Obama signed into law in 2009 extended the deadline for filing pay discrimination lawsuits.

In an April interview with ABC’s Diane Sawyer, Romney said he supported equal pay for women, though he declined to say whether he would have signed the 2009 law if he were president.

A campaign spokeswoman declined yesterday to provide Romney’s position on the Senate bill. “Governor Romney supports pay equity for women,” Amanda Henneberg said in an e-mailed statement.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, said the legislation was designed to “reward plaintiffs’ lawyers” who have traditionally supported Democrats.

“We don’t think America suffers from a lack of litigation,” McConnell said.

The bill is S. 3220.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kathleen Hunter in Washington at khunter9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jodi Schneider at jschneider50@bloomberg.net


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