Democratic legislation meant to fight gender discrimination in the workplace failed in the Democrat-controlled Senate Tuesday on a procedural vote.
In a 52 to 47 tally the Senate defeated the Paycheck Fairness Act. The legislation aimed to increase protections for women filing gender-discrimination lawsuits, as well as create a federal grant program to improve women's salary negotiating skills.
The vote came down strictly along party lines, with the two independent senators voting with Democrats and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) not voting. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) changed his vote so that he could bring the bill up again.
"It is a very sad day here in the United States Senate, but it's a sadder day every day when paycheck day comes and women continue to make less than men," Mikulski said after the vote. "We're sorry that this vote occurred strictly on party lines."
President Obama accused Republicans of putting "partisan politics ahead of women and their families."
"It is 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," Obama said in a statement.
"Despite the progress that has been made over the years, women continue to earn substantially less than men for performing the same work. My Administration will continue to fight for a woman’s right for equal pay for equal work, as we rebuild our economy so that hard work pays off, responsibility is rewarded, and every American gets a fair shot to succeed," he added.
Senate Republicans argued that the measure does not strengthen laws fighting gender discrimination in the workplace and instead just creates more bureaucracy.
Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) introduced an alternative to the Paycheck Fairness Act, called the End Pay Discrimination Through Information Act. Both the paycheck bill and Heller's bill include protections for women asking about salaries to try to find if they are being discriminated against, but Heller's bill does not include a provision in the Paycheck Fairness Act that allows the federal government to collect salary information to monitor possible pay discrimination. Heller's bill also does not include federal grants to help women improve their salary-negotiating skills.
"Let me be clear, pay discrimination based on gender is unacceptable," Heller said Tuesday, before the vote. "Despite the political rhetoric around here, everyone agrees on this fact. The question is, will the Paycheck Fairness Act actually address workplace inequality? And the simple answer is no."
Outside business groups like the Chamber of Commerce also expressed opposition to the Paycheck Fairness Act. On Monday the chamber sent out a letter stating that it "strongly opposes" the measure and urged lawmakers to vote against it.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said in voting against the bill, GOP senators were ignoring broad public support for the measure, including among Republicans.
"This is a common-sense measure with broad public support. Nine out of 10 Americans – including 81 percent of men and 77 percent of Republicans – support this legislation," Reid said. "But once again, the only Republicans who are left opposing a common-sense measure to improve our economy and help middle-class families are the ones here in Washington."
"This is an issue, Mr. President, that not only affects women, but our families and our economy," Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said. "You would see the economy stimulated because middle-class families would spend those dollars, they don't hoard those dollars."
Boxer said she could not comprehend why Republicans would want to block the bill but was sure "they'll come up with some excuse."
Mikulski said that the Fair Paycheck Act would not harm small businesses.
"What I would like to be able to say is that small business has protections under the Equal Pay Act, under the existing law, which this would not change," Mikulski said. "The Equal Pay Act already exempts small business that makes less than $500,000 in annual revenue per year. So it keeps the equal pay exemption intact."
Prior to the vote, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) predicted it would be a "partisan roll call."
"There will be Democrats in favor of ending this discrimination and virtually all Republicans — and I hope that I'm wrong on this — are going to vote against it," Durbin said.
This story was updated at 4:12 p.m.