WASHINGTON — President Obama used his executive power and a hot-button issue to try to stoke support from a key election-year constituency Tuesday, as he issued two directives aimed at ensuring federal contractors pay women as much as men for equal work.
Surrounding himself with female supporters at the White House, Obama signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against employees who talk about how much money they make. Advocates say secrecy about salaries is a major contributor to the gap in average pay between male and female workers in the United States, which the White House says means women make 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.
The president also ordered contractors to report data to the government showing the compensation paid to employees by gender and race.
Democrats have repeatedly tried and failed to pass legislation imposing similar rules on most employers, and they are picking up the effort again this week in a party-wide push tied to Tuesday's Equal Pay Day. The proposed Paycheck Fairness Act is expected to be put to a vote for the third time in the Senate on Wednesday, but is not expected to overcome Republican opposition.
Still, Democrats see the legislation as an effective tool to rally women, particularly middle- and low-income working women, whose votes they'll need to retain their Senate majority in November. Democrats typically win a majority of female voters in general elections, but are trying to avoid a repeat of the 2010 midterm shellacking that saw many of those voters either stay home or shift parties.
As he signed the executive actions Tuesday, Obama returned to the message he honed when he won over female voters in 2012.
"America should be a level playing field, a fair race for everybody, a place where anybody who's willing to work hard has a chance to get ahead," Obama said, mocking Republicans as trapped in another era.
"I don't know why you would resist the idea that women should be paid the same as men, and then deny that that's not always happening out there," the president said. "If Republicans in Congress want to prove me wrong, if they want to show that they in fact do care about women being paid the same as men, then show me. They can start tomorrow. They can join us in this, the 21st century."
Republicans noted that federal law already barred workplace gender discrimination and argued that additional rules would limit women's choices and burden employers. They turned to female lawmakers Tuesday to make the case.
"Let's focus on those policies that are actually going to move forward on a jobs plan that will create a higher paycheck, more opportunities and that opportunity for a better life, which we all want," said Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) "Two out of three small businesses right now are being started by women. ... So women understand the direct impact of the policies and the impact that they have on them."
Republican senators offered potential amendments to the Democratic bill to show they are on the side of women. One measure, led by Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska, echoes the president's action by updating current law with a provision that would prevent retaliation against workers who discuss their salaries. Another, backed by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, would allow workers to take time off instead of overtime pay.
"This isn't just a way to help workers. It's a way to especially help working mothers," McConnell said.
Democrats' cheering of Equal Pay Day was muffled by a debate over the size and root causes of the pay gap. Some economists and commentators take issue with the White House statistic, saying it exaggerates the gap by looking at women's salaries in the aggregate and not accounting for differences in education level, hours worked or experience.
When the salaries for White House staff members are analyzed the same way, women turn out to make 88 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to a recent study conducted by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. The analysis of 2013 payroll data found that the 228 female employees in the Obama White House were paid a median annual salary of $65,000 this year, compared with $73,729 for the 231 male employees.
Press Secretary Jay Carney said the numbers reflected the fact that more women than men hold lower-level positions in the White House. Women and men with equal duties make equal pay, he said.
"But at every level, here at the White House, you're paid the same for the work that you do, regardless of your gender," Carney said, noting that Obama has several senior-level female advisors. Carney said the 88-cent figure was "not 100, but it is better than the national average."
Republicans seized on the numbers as evidence that the Democrats were trying to enforce a double standard.
"Why is the White House judged by one standard and the rest of the country by another?" Republican National Committee spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski wrote in a memo to reporters. "There's a disparity not because female engineers are making less than male engineers at the same company with comparable experience. The disparity exists because a female social worker makes less than a male engineer — just as a female engineer would out-earn a male social worker. The difference isn't because of their genders; it's because of their jobs."
Lisa Mascaro and Michael A. Memoli in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.