Equal rights: one law at a time

Women, who are participating in politics in record numbers and voting more independently than ever, may see the results of their new clout this year on Capitol Hill.

A broad coalition of lawmakers has unveiled the latest version of the women's Economic Equity Act amid hopes that this session it will pass. If Congress can't pass the Equal Rights Amendment, so the reasoning goes, it can begin to attack inequality on a law-by-law basis. The proposals range from protecting a wife's pension benefits to reforming the insurance industry and collecting child-support payments from delinquent fathers.

Much of the package was proposed two years ago, and only three of its measures were enacted into law. But supporters are optimistic that this Congress will be different.

''I think in the 98th Congress we could do the whole thing,'' says Sen. Dave Durenberger (R) of Minnesota. One of the chief sponsors of the package, he is urging fellow Republicans and the White House to back it.

''I've been disappointed all along,'' he says of his efforts to win presidential endorsement. But he may have more success with Republican senators , many of whom will be running for reelection next year.

''They don't realize it yet, but I think they will realize within a year that this would be awfully good legislation to be on,'' says the Minnesota Republican , who won a tough reelection battle of his own last fall.

He predicts that in the coming years the economic problems of women, the so-called ''feminization of poverty,'' will become an increasingly big issue. His advice to senators who will be running soon: ''If you're smart, get on (as a sponsor of the equity act) early and push real hard.''

Rep. Olympia J. Snowe (R) of Maine, a chief House sponsor, sees a friendlier atmosphere this year in her party. ''I have a different feeling this time,'' she says. ''Republicans are more aware of the need for us as a party to be more closely identified with the needs of women.''

Republicans have found themselves on the short end of the ''gender gap,'' as women have moved toward the Democratic party in recent years. But it is ''not irreversible,'' says Representative Snowe. She and other Republican women in Congress will take their argument to the White House next week, when they plan to ask President Reagan to endorse the Economic Equity Act.

''The gender gap has got people very antsy,'' says Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D) of Colorado, who cochairs the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues. ''It's gotten everyone's attention.''

Among evidence of the interest, the women's issues caucus, which began admitting men more than a year ago, has expanded to 118 members (including 14 women). During the past election campaign, male members began asking their female colleagues to make radio ads in their behalf.

Sen. Gary Hart, a Colorado Democrat seeking the presidency, recently consulted with congressional women at a breakfast as one of his early campaign efforts. ''That's just not happened before,'' says Representative Schroeder.

Meanwhile, House Democrats, who see the gender gap favoring their party, are attempting to reach out to women through their federal budget plan. They are taking pains to contrast it with the Reagan budget.

''Last year the programs that benefited women were gutted,'' says Rep. Geraldine A. Ferraro (D) of New York. She points to food stamps, welfare, nutrition programs, and legal services, all areas where the Reagan administration proposes either cuts or a freeze. House Democrats would cut none of these programs and add money to each.

Further, the House leadership has awarded the symbolic honor of ''House Resolution One'' (HR 1) to the Equal Rights Amendment. Supporters of the ERA expect it to pass the House but stall in the Republican-controlled Senate.

The push for the Economic Equity Act will be bipartisan, however, with Oregon Republican Sens. Mark O. Hatfield and Bob Packwood, as well as Durenberger, as the chief sponsors.

Major elements in the package include:

* Insurance reforms forbidding insurance companies to charge differing rates to customers on the basis of sex.

* Private pension reform to give divorced and widowed wives rights to their husbands' pensions.

* Tax reform to allow a bigger tax break for single heads of household.

* Child-support enforcement incentives to collect payments from delinquent fathers. (Between a quarter and a third of fathers fail to make even one court-ordered payment, according to the bill's supporters.)

* Expanded tax credits for child-care expenses. Parents too poor to pay income taxes would receive reimbursement from the government for work-related day-care costs.

* Tax incentives to businesses that hire displaced homemakers (women who, because of a broken marriage or widowhood, find themselves on their own with no marketable jobs skills).

Supporters of the bill have no estimate of the cost of the bill, but Senator Durenberger has predicted that opponents, who have not yet surfaced, will base their arguments on cost.

The chief problem for the supporters, however, has been that their proposals were too low on the priority list.

''As women become more politically sophisticated, they are going to ask, 'Where is your priority and why haven't you pushed it?' '' says Representative Schroeder.

During the last Congress, three pieces of the package became law. Congress decided that military pensions, which had been held by the courts to be the sole property of the serviceman, could now be divided by divorced couples. Inheritance taxes were reduced for farm widows. And Congress granted tax credits for day-care costs to low- and moderate-income working parents.

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