By Alexander Bolton - 04/09/14 06:03 AM EDT
Senate Democrats on Wednesday will put Republicans on the spot with a pay equity vote that they hope will give their vulnerable incumbents fresh ammo for the midterm elections.
Republicans are poised to hold the line against the Paycheck Fairness Act in a victory for GOP leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who pushed for unity after the party splintered earlier this week in a vote on unemployment benefits.
Democrats, meanwhile, expressed optimism that the vote on Wednesday would bolster their populist economic pitch for the elections.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) even declared Senate Democrats would be “fine” if the election were held today, despite ominous predictions from election handicappers who say their majority is teetering.
“We feel we’re doing OK, that if the election were held today we would be fine,” he said.
Senate Republicans argue the Paycheck Fairness Act is a giveaway to trial lawyers because it would eliminate caps on punitive damage in cases of pay discrimination, and have pointed to research that shows there is little pay disparity between the sexes.
The paycheck bill has been the focus of an intense public-relations campaign by President Obama, who on Tuesday signed two executive orders implementing new rules for federal contractors.
“This isn’t just about treating women fairly,” Obama said at a White House press conference. “This is about Republicans seemingly opposing any efforts to even the playing field for working families. 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.”
One order signed by the president prohibits federal contractors from retaliating against employees who inquire about the compensation of coworkers. Another would require contractors to submit to the Labor Department data about compensation to employees of different sexes and races.
The Democrats’ Paycheck Fairness Act would prohibit employer retaliation for sharing salary information with coworkers and allow women to seek punitive damages for pay discrimination. It would also establish a grant program to help women negotiate for higher salaries.
Unless Reid makes an about-face and allows votes on a slew of GOP amendments, Republicans will block the bill, opening a new chapter in the fight to win women voters in the midterm elections.
Democrats hope to extend the “Republican War on Women” theme that worked well for them in 2012, when they focused their resources on single women.
A poll released Tuesday by Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling firm, showed that Democrats could be hurt in the midterm election by a severe drop in turnout among unmarried women as well as young and minority voters. The poll indicated Democrats could counteract this trend by stressing equal pay and a higher minimum wage.
Next on the Senate Democratic agenda is a proposal to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour. Democrats often emphasize that two out of three workers now earning the minimum wage are women.
“It’s a whole plan. I mean, if you look at all eight of our items it gets to almost every voter two or three times,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), the Senate Democrats’ messaging and strategy guru. “Pay equity, that’s women, that’s 53 percent of the vote. Minimum wage affects about 25 percent of the people who tend to be the poorer people, but it’s a real turnout. People turn out for minimum wage.”
He said that’s why Democrats have put minimum wage increases on about a half dozen state ballots.
But so far Reid has been unable to drive a wedge between the women in the Senate Republican Conference and the all-male Senate GOP leadership.
Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the Democrats’ best hope to cross over on the equity vote, said she would vote against proceeding to the Paycheck Fairness Act unless Reid promised votes on Republican amendments.
“There are provisions that I think that we could agree on that would strengthen the current law, but unfortunately the Democratic leader does not seem interested in trying to pursue any of those consensus provisions,” she said.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), another Democratic target, said she would also vote with McConnell and other leaders.
“I don’t think we’re going to be getting any amendments. That seems clear. The majority leader just objected to every amendment that we brought that was related to this bill,” she said.
Reid said Tuesday he was not inclined to give Republicans free rein to offer amendments. He cited as justification a Republican-sponsored package offered during the floor debate on unemployment benefits that would have repealed the Affordable Care Act.
The women of the Senate GOP conference, Collins, Ayotte, Sens. Deb Fischer (Neb.) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) unveiled an alternative proposal Tuesday that would prohibit retaliation against employees who inquire about salaries while reinforcing current law prohibiting discrimination based on gender.
It would not lift limits to seek punitive damages for pay discrimination.