WASHINGTON — With sought-after women voters at stake, Senate Republicans blocked election-year legislation Wednesday aimed at ensuring that female workers receive equal pay for doing the same work as men.
A high-profile campaign for the Paycheck Fairness Act, orchestrated by the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House, did little to motivate Republicans in a mid-term election year when both parties are seeking women voters.
Republican senators blocked the bill on a party-line filibuster, 53-44, with many waging a protest vote over party leaders' refusal to allow amendments.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), the longest-serving woman in Congress, said it "brings tears to my eyes" to hear the stories of women being paid less than men for equal work. Studies show women earn 77 cents, on average, for every $1 paid to men, though research also suggests that only a portion of that discrepancy is due to discrimination.
"It makes me emotional to hear that," Mikulski joked, referring to a recent comment by a former national security official who suggested Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, was "emotional" in her response to CIA interrogation techniques. "Then when I hear all these phony reasons, some are mean and some are meaningless, I get angry. I get outraged. I get volcanic."
Democrats have proposed bills to narrow the pay gap in the past, and in 2009 Congress approved the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which allowed women to take legal action well after the time the pay discrepancy occurred.
Wednesday's measure would have expanded on that law by banning workplace retaliation for those who discuss their pay. It would also require employers to explain why workers in similar jobs earn more than others and would allow workers to seek punitive damages, in addition to back pay, in legal battles.
No Republicans voted to advance the bill, and several had offered alternative measures. Sen. Angus King of Maine, the independent who votes with Democrats, joined the GOP filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), switched his vote to no in a procedural move that allows the bill to be brought up for another vote in the future.
And Democrats are likely to do just that. Strategists believe the pay-equity issue resonates with women voters, who often play an oversized role in elections, shifting between the parties. Democrats may return to the issue in the months ahead as they try to attract women voters in their election-year efforts to keep control of the Senate.
[For the record 3:04 p.m. PDT April 9: An earlier version of this post misspelled Lilly Ledbetter's name as Leadbetter.]