As expected, the pay equity bill failed along party lines, 52-47, short of the required 60-vote threshold. But for majority Democrats, passage wasn't the only point. The debate itself was aimed at putting Republicans on the defensive on yet another women's issue, this one overtly economic after a government report showing slower-than-expected job growth.
"It is incredibly disappointing that in this make-or-break moment for the middle class, Senate Republicans put partisan politics ahead of American women and their families," Obama said in a statement after the vote.
"Even Mitt Romney has refused to publicly oppose this legislation," added Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "He should show some leadership."
Unlike past taunts over access to contraception and abortion, Republicans this time didn't take the bait.
In Fort Worth, Texas, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee focused instead on unemployment among Hispanics.
"Of course Gov. Romney supports pay equity for women," said Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg. "In order to have pay equity, women need to have jobs, and they have been getting crushed in this anemic Obama economy."
The device for the choreographed showdown in Washington was a Senate debate over the "Paycheck Fairness Act," a measure that aims to strengthen the Fair Labor Standards Act's protections against pay inequities based on gender.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., would require employers to prove that differences in pay are based on qualifications, education and other "bona fides" not related to gender. It also would prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who ask about, discuss or disclose wages in response to a complaint or investigation. And it would make employers who violate sex discrimination laws liable for compensatory or punitive damages. Under the bill, the federal government would be exempt from punitive damages.
Proponents of the bill say it is the next step after the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which Obama signed into law in 2009. The law effectively overturned a Supreme Court decision that had strictly limited workers' ability to file lawsuits over pay inequity. Ledbetter said she didn't become aware of her own pay discrepancy until she neared the end of her 1979-1988 career at a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. plant in Gadsden, Ala.
Near the end of her career, she received an anonymous tip that she was earning less than her male colleagues. She filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A jury initially awarded her more than $3 million in back pay and punitive damages, a sum that a judge later reduced to $300,000.
Ledbetter herself attended the vote and scolded Republicans for their filibuster.
"Do not let these Republicans keep us from getting paycheck fairness," she told reporters, Reid at her side and a letter from her to Romney posted online by the Obama campaign.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell spoke instead on the looming fight over student loan interest rates. Asked if he was concerned about alienating women with the GOP filibuster, the Kentucky Republican said the bill opened the door to more lawsuits against employers.
"We don't think America suffers from a lack of litigation," McConnell said. "We have a jobless problem. We have a debt problem. We have a deficit problem. We got a lot of problems. Not enough lawsuits is not one of them."
Democrats intend to test that discipline in the coming months by raising hubbubs nationally and in House and Senate races over several issues that disproportionately affect women, or just matter greatly to this group of voters that leans heavily toward their party. Independent women voters in exurbs and suburbs of states like Colorado, Virginia and North Carolina are particular targets, said these officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss strategy.
First up in this category is the looming Senate debate over preventing student loan interest rates from rising next month. Look, too, for hubbubs over raising the minimum wage, extending the Bush-era tax cuts, preserving Medicare and Social Security and access to women's health care, including contraception, the officials said.
The paycheck bill was aimed in part at putting Senate Republicans in tough races in the hot seat over a key women's issue. One, Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, issued a statement emphasizing his support for pay equity but calling the legislation "the right cause but the wrong bill."
"On the heels of last week's dismal jobs report, the last thing we should be doing is putting more job-killing burdens on small businesses and employers," he said.
Tweeted challenger Elizabeth Warren: "Scott Brown voted NO on Paycheck Fairness, telling MA women he thinks it's ok that they continue to earn less than men."
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