Senate Democrats plan another trap for Mitt Romney with female voters

Senate Democrats are planning a new ploy to put Mitt Romney and Republicans on the defensive with female voters.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) will bring to the floor in coming weeks legislation to protect women from retaliation by employers if they inquire about salaries paid to male colleagues.

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Republicans voted in unison to block the bill, the Paycheck Fairness Act, when it came to the floor in November of 2010.

Democrats say it will be difficult for GOP senators to back out of their opposition, especially because the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has staunchly opposed the legislation.

Mitt Romney will either have to split with Republicans and an important business group or take a position that could further erode his support among women.

"Romney's going to be on defense on the Paycheck Fairness Act," said a senior Democratic aide.  

"Women are making 70 cents on a dollar of what a man is making. This will resonate with females across the spectrum. If Republicans to a person are coming down against it, it will be at their political peril," the aide said.  

A spokeswoman for Romney’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

The bill would prohibit employer discrimination for inquiring about, discussing or disclosing the wages of another employee.

It would expand the definition of wage discrimination by allowing employees to compare the pay of male colleagues not only within the same office but also with colleagues in other local offices. A female employee could allege wage discrimination if she is paid less than a male working the same job for the same employer across town.

Not a single Republican voted to advance the legislation when Reid brought it to the floor during the 2010 lame duck session, after Republicans scored a huge electoral victory but Democrats still controlled the House and Senate.

Forty Republicans and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) voted against the legislation. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) did not vote. 

“They all voted against it last time,” said a senior Democratic aide. “They’re pretty locked in. The Chamber is adamantly against it. It’s hard to see how the Chamber would change position or let it pass. It seems unlikely given the Republican history of opposition and the Chamber’s very strong opposition to it.”

The Chamber outlined its concerns in a letter to senators during the last lame duck session.

“This bill would, among other things, expand remedies under [the Equal Pay Act] to include unlimited punitive and compensatory damages, significantly erode employer defense for legitimate pay disparities, and impose invalid tools for enforcement by the Labor Department,” the group wrote.

The Chamber argues the legislation would increase the opportunity for frivolous litigation and could result in increased costs for companies as they hire attorneys and conduct investigations to examine claims.

It says the bill would significantly erode the defenses available to employers under the Equal Pay Act by permitting plaintiffs to challenge legitimate pay decisions if they show other employment practices would not create disparities.  

The National Organization for Women, which supports the measure, argues it would strengthen the Equal Pay Act and create incentives for employers to follow the law.

Democrats are hoping to add to President Obama’s advantage over Romney with women voters. A CNN/ORC International poll released earlier this month showed Obama with a 16-point lead with female voters.

A GOP aide suggested Obama could be hit with criticisms of hypocrisy if Democrats pursue the Paycheck Fairness Act. The aide noted an annual report on White House staff showed female employees earned a median annual salary of $60,000 and male employees earned a median salary of $71,000, a statistic reported by The Washington Free Beacon.

The Free Beacon’s report, however, did not take into account the varying levels of seniority held by female and male White House employees.

Obama on Friday talked about the importance of pay parity between men and women and is expected to make it a central talking point in the fall campaign.

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act was the first bill Obama signed into law. The legislation expanded the rights of workers to sue for pay discrimination. It addressed a controversial Supreme Court ruling that required discrimination claims to be filed within 180 days of an employer’s pay decision, even if the plaintiff did not find out about the decision until much later.

Senate Democrats tried to put Republicans in a tough spot last week by scheduling a vote on the Violence Against Women Act, which every GOP member of the Judiciary Committee opposed in April.

Republicans accused Democrats of playing politics by including language expanding special visas for illegal immigrants, granting power to Indian tribal authorities to prosecute non-tribe members for abuse claims, and ensuring that partners in same-sex couples can participate domestic-violence programs.

Romney sidestepped the controversy by announcing his support for reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act without specifically endorsing the Senate Democratic bill. Senate Republicans quickly conceded and allowed the bill to receive a final vote without waging a filibuster.