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Dems Escalate Battle For Women Voters With Equal Pay Bill

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"As I look at the record of Republicans on women, it is not good," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). "Personally I say it's a war on women, and the more they protest it the more I say it. Because I really, truly believe it. They filibustered the Paycheck Fairness Act before. They left millions of women out of the Violence Against Women Act. They launched repeated attacks on women's health including denying affordable access to birth control. They want to criminalize a woman's right to choose. And they tried to repeal health reform, which prohibits discrimination because of gender -- not to mention, makes investments in prevention."

The legislation, spearheaded by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), aims to build on the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act by protecting women from retaliation if they sue for equal pay. It would also narrow the criteria under which an employer can defend pay disparities and enlist the Department of Labor to help eliminate gender-based pay gaps.

Beneath the effort is an ongoing debate as to why, as Census data shows, women earn 77 cents for every dollar men make. Progressives say it's a product of institutional discrimination while conservatives chalk it up to differences in career choices. Studies suggest that women are likely to earn less than men across professions, although part of the overall gap is caused by career decisions and the fact that women tend to take more time off for children.

"The Paycheck Fairness Act isn't just about women, and it's not just about fairness. It is about the economy," said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), a member of the Democratic leadership. "When women are not paid what they deserve, middle class families and communities pay the price."

Republican aides declined to comment for this article. The GOP blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act bill in November 2010, when Senate Democrats were unable to overcome a unanimous Republican filibuster. Senate GOP women who had voted for Lily Ledbetter argued at the time that the PFA would expose small businesses to excessive lawsuits and impose new costs and restrictions in a tough economic climate.

This time, however, the Democrats' large advantage with women voters makes it riskier for Republicans to stand in the way of the bill. Whatever their rationale, Democrats will tar them with a frequent refrain that has frustrated the GOP and its presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

"They say they didn't launch a war on women," Boxer said Wednesday, "so we're giving them a chance to walk this back."

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Sahil Kapur is TPM's senior congressional reporter and Supreme Court correspondent. His articles have been published in the Huffington Post, The Guardian and The New Republic. Email him at sahil@talkingpointsmemo.com and follow him on Twitter at @sahilkapur.