Senate Republicans blocked a vote on Wednesday to open debate on the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would hold employers more accountable for wage discrimination against women. The Senate voted 53 to 44 to move forward on the bill, falling short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a Republican filibuster.
The bill would prohibit retaliation against employees who share their salary information with each other, which supporters say would eliminate the culture of silence that keeps women in the dark about pay discrimination. It would also require the Department of Labor to collect wage data from employers, broken down by race and gender, and require employers to show that wage differentials between men and women in the same jobs are for a reason other than sex.
All Republicans present and one Independent, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), voted against proceeding to debate the bill. All Democrats and Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) voted in favor.
"At a time when the Obama economy is already hurting women so much, this legislation would double down on job loss, all while lining the pockets of trial lawyers," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said before the vote. "In other words, it's just another Democratic idea that threatens to hurt the very people that it claims to help."
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) criticized McConnell's caucus for opposing the bill.
"Are they so repulsed by equal pay for hardworking women that they'll obstruct equal pay for equal work?" he said Wednesday before the vote. "I'm at a loss as to why anyone would decline to debate this important issue."
The bill is part of the Democrats' larger policy push, ahead of the November election, to increase economic security for women, which includes proposals to raise the minimum wage, allow workers to earn a certain amount of paid family and sick leave and expand affordable childcare and pre-Kindergarten for working parents.
"This is not just an issue of fairness," President Barack Obama said in a speech on Tuesday. "It’s also a family issue and an economic issue, because women make up about half of our workforce and they’re increasingly the breadwinners for a whole lot of families out there. So when they make less money, it means less money for gas, less money for groceries, less money for child care, less money for college tuition, less money is going into retirement savings."
U.S. Census Bureau data shows that women who work full-time earn an average of 77 cents for every dollar men earn in a year. When you compare women and men with the same education and experience levels working the same jobs, the pay gap shrinks, but there is still an unexplained gap of 7 to 9 percent, economists estimate, suggesting persistent pay discrimination against women.
Most Republicans in Congress object to all of the Democrats' proposals related to women's economic security. Senate Republicans have blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act twice before, claiming that it will only result in more lawsuits against employers. GOP lawmakers slammed the Paycheck Fairness Act again on Tuesday, calling it "condescending" to women.
"Many ladies I know feel like they are being used as pawns, and find it condescending [that] Democrats are trying to use this issue as a political distraction from the failures of their economic policy," Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kan.), the GOP conference's vice chair, said Tuesday at a press conference.
Equal pay advocates expressed their dismay after Wednesday's vote, suggesting the consequences will be felt in November.
"Today's vote is a disappointment for women and families across the United States. Considering the impact of the gender pay gap, it's mystifying that the Senate can't even agree to debate it!" said Lisa Maatz, the vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women. "That's what happened today –- GOP senators essentially filibustered equal pay for women. Given the size of the gender voting gap, Republicans are foolish to cede this issue to Democrats."