The legislation, introduced this month by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), beefs up existing equal-pay laws by protecting women from retaliation if they sue for gender discrimination. 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.
The timing of the push is unquestionably political. Republicans are aggressively arguing that their "war on women" is a charge Dems cooked up for political gain. At the same time, Republicans have dropped their push to limit women's access to contraception and have accepted the need to renew anti-domestic-violence funding.
Now Democrats want to push them further -- and that's where the Paycheck Fairness Act comes in. If Republicans resist it, Dems will seize on the optics to call their bluff on caring about women. And if the GOP gets behind it, Dems can tout a victory on behalf of female voters.
"Republicans may not like to hear it," a Senate Democratic aide said, "but as long as they keep fighting against policies that level the playing field for women and families, we are going to keep talking to the American people about it."
Part of the aim is to also box in likely nominee Mitt Romney, who is working to balance the wishes of conservatives with his need to court women voters. But female voters' priorities consistently conflict with conservative opposition to this kind of legislation, and it'll be difficult for the presumptive Republican nominee to take a stance that does not upset some prospective voters.
Last week the battle for women voters extended to the battle over student loans, as the White House and Democrats used the occasion to argue the House GOP's preferred method of paying for the extension -- axing the health care law's prevention fund -- would harm women's health.