Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act, a bill crafted by Democrats to appeal to women voters in the midterm election.
Democrats needed 60 votes to advance the legislation but fell short in a 53-44 vote. Not a single Republican voted to end the dilatory debate, and Independent Angus King (Maine), who caucuses with Democrats, voted with Republicans.
But the outcome of the vote was never really in doubt, and both Senate Democrats and the White House have made it clear they intend to use the issue to rally their voters around this fall’s midterm elections.
Democrats have benefitted from a gender gap at the polls, and the party hopes that by emphasizing certain issues, they’ll be positioned to take advantage in November.
“For reasons known only to them, Senate Republicans do not appear to be interested in closing the wage gap for working women,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said. “Are Republicans in the Senate so repulsed by equal pay for hard-working American women that they can’t even stomach the thought of debating the issue?”Reid said Wednesday afternoon that he would bring the legislation back to the floor to force Republicans to force Republicans to vote on it again.
“They'll have another chance to vote on this,” said Reid, who switched his vote to no to preserve his right to bring the legislation up for a vote again.
He declined to specify a timeline, adding that he would consult with Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md), the bill's sponsor.
“Pay equity, that’s women, that’s 53 percent of the vote,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ chief political strategist, noted to reporters before the vote, outlining its political ramifications.
Democrats outperformed Republicans among women voters in 2012, one of the reasons they picked up two Senate seats despite predictions they would lose ground. Democratic pollsters worry that low turnout, especially among unmarried women, will hurt Democrats this year.
In a statement, President Obama blasted Republicans for blocking a "simple yes-or-no vote" on the legislation.
"Republicans in Congress continue to oppose serious efforts to create jobs, grow the economy, and level the playing field for working families," the president said. "That’s wrong, and it’s harmful for our national efforts to rebuild an economy that gives every American who works hard a fair shot to get ahead."
The legislation punishes employers for retaliating against workers who share wage information, and puts the justification burden on employers as to why someone is paid less and allows workers to sue for punitive damages of wage discrimination.
It requires the Department of Labor to increase outreach and training with employers to eliminate pay inequality and to continue to collect wage information based on gender.
The bill would also create a grant program to train women on wage negotiation skills.
“It brings tears to my eyes to know women are working so hard and being paid less,” Mikulski said ahead of the vote. “It makes me emotional when I hear that. … I get angry; I get outraged and I get volcanic.”
Mikulski and other women Democratic senators have planned a press conference with the Democratic leadership Wednesday afternoon to blast Republicans for voting against the legislation.
Republicans voted in unison against the bill because they saw it as a “giveaway” to trial lawyers because it would remove caps on punitive damages against businesses found guilty of discrimination.
Centrists, such as Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), also cited Reid’s refusal to allow them votes on number GOP-sponsored amendments.
Reid objected to Republicans’ requests for amendments on Tuesday, saying many of them were unrelated to the underlying bill.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was one of several senators who wanted to offer amendments. His would have allowed private sector workers to use comp time as flexible credit hours during the workweek rather than just being paid overtime.
“Senate Democrats want to control this debate from start to finish — and basically do nothing to help with our efforts to expand opportunity and jobs for women and men,” he said Wednesday. “Why did Senate Democrats object to our job-creation legislation?”
Some other GOP amendments would have repealed parts of ObamaCare and forced the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline — measures the GOP say would create jobs.
McConnell also said he opposes the underlying legislation because it would “line the pockets of trial lawyers” instead of truly helping women.
“I have never heard more rubbish in my life,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said to that argument. “It's not the trial lawyers that we care about; it's the women.”
In a statement, King said he voted against the bill because it failed to address the real reasons for unequal pay between men and women, and because it would hurt businesses.
"The way to narrow the wage gap between men and women includes facilitating more family-friendly workplaces, which will allow women to stay in the workforce if they choose to have children; encouraging more girls and young women to pursue higher-paying professions, like science, engineering, law, and medicine; and improving the earning potential for low-wage workers, who are disproportionately women," he said.
At the end of this month, Democrats are also expected to push legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $10.10. Senators have argued that bill would also help women and their families, since it would result in a raise for nearly 25 percent of female workers.
— This story was last updated at 4:39 p.m.