Democrats fail in vote on pay bias

Times Staff Writer

Senate Democrats failed Wednesday to overcome a threatened Republican filibuster of a bill that would loosen the restrictions on the length of time in which workers could file pay discrimination claims against their employers.

The 56-42 vote was split largely along party lines. Six Republicans joined all but one of the Democrats and independents in attempting to block the filibuster, which required 60 votes for success. Two Republicans, including the party’s likely presidential nominee, John McCain of Arizona, did not vote.

The legislation, already passed by the House, would circumvent the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last summer that federal law imposes a tight deadline -- 180 days from the date of the first paycheck received -- for employees to file pay discrimination complaints. The Senate vote means that, for the time being, the court’s decision will remain in effect.

“We think that this bill is primarily designed to create a massive amount of new litigation in our country, and I think that is the reason for the resistance to its passage on our side,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.


The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, endorsed by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, was brought up this week in honor of Tuesday’s Equal Pay Day, established by civil rights advocates to call attention to a wage gap that has women earning on average 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.

Ledbetter sued Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in Gadsden, Ala., six months before retiring in 1998, after she had found documents showing that she earned as much as 40% less per month than male managers of her same position. She started working for Goodyear in 1979.

A jury awarded her $223,776 in back pay and almost $3.3 million in punitive damages. But Goodyear appealed, arguing that Ledbetter had filed her claim too late, and the appellate court and the Supreme Court concurred.

Even if the bill is eventually approved, President Bush has threatened to veto it, meaning that Democrats would have to gain significantly more crossover support to have a chance of gaining the two-thirds majority for an override. As a result, the bill’s support among Democrats is largely symbolic.

In a presidential election year, Democrats see the issue as one in which they have the moral high ground and can argue that they are fighting for working, middle-class Americans. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, the party’s presidential candidates, returned to Washington and voted for the bill.

“If you work hard and do a good job, you should be rewarded no matter what you look like, where you come from or what gender you are,” Obama said.

“Clearly, we have not finished the business of equality in the workplace, and equal pay for those who do the same job,” Clinton said. “This is the law we had until the Supreme Court changed it.”

The Supreme Court decision is controversial because it could enable employers to continue paying their employees in a discriminatory fashion for the workers’ entire careers if the employees do not dispute their pay within 180 days of receiving their first check.

The bill’s supporters argue that until the ruling, the accepted legal view was that any discriminatory paycheck could be considered a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin and religion. Supporters say the 180-day limit was intended to be applicable to any paycheck and argue that it is difficult for employees to find out what co-workers earn in such a short time frame.

“I am deeply disappointed,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. “The Supreme Court’s unfortunate decision in the Ledbetter case a year ago severely undermined the law. It has to be changed.”

Republicans have remained in line with business groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, that have lobbied to defeat the bill on the grounds that it would substantially increase litigation. McCain did not return to Washington for the vote but told reporters on his campaign bus in Kentucky he opposed the bill.

“I am all in favor of pay equity for women,” McCain said. “This kind of legislation -- as is typical of what is being proposed by my friends on the other side of the aisle -- opens us up for lawsuits, for all kinds of problems and difficulties in compliance. . . . This is government playing a much, much greater role in the business of a private enterprise system.”


Times staff writer Maeve Reston, traveling with the McCain campaign, contributed to this report.