It's long been an issue trumpeted by the White House: equal pay for women.
Last year the administration rolled out an initiative aimed at narrowing the persistent wage gap. But it was rebuffed by Congress. Now President Clinton is pushing again, but this time, the announcement carries stronger political overtones.
While the White House would clearly like to see the wage gap winnowed, it's also looking to give Vice President Al Gore a bounce in the polls. He could face a formidable fight with Texas Gov. George W. Bush for the women's vote in a general election.
"At this point, you have to look at everything that the administration does in terms of strategic positioning," says John Zogby, an independent pollster .
Yesterday, Mr. Clinton announced he will ask Congress for $27 million in his 2001 budget to promote equal pay for women - giving a sneak peek of his agenda before he lays it out in his State of the Union speech Thursday.
According to the US Census Bureau, women nationally earned 73 cents for every dollar men earned in 1998. And while the gap has been closing, progress has been slow, with women gaining less than a penny a year during the past 15 years.
A White House official says there is nothing special about the timing of the announcement - on the day of the Iowa caucuses and a week before the New Hampshire primary.
"Every year the president launches his agenda," the official says. "This initiative would be part of the president's agenda regardless of the timing of the elections."
But it could also serve a dual purpose of helping the vice president, say political analysts. They point to Clinton's aggressive budget proposals in the areas of health, education, and gun control - all issues that resonate among voters, especially women.
Traditionally, Democratic candidates poll well among women, while Republicans do well among men. The concern now, though, is that the Democrat advantage among female voters will erode if Mr. Bush wins the Republican nomination. He is currently polling well among women.
Can an issue like pay equity resonate with women voters?
It's a "terrific issue," says Charles Cook, an independent political analyst. "What's the argument against pay equity? ... To the extent that you can talk about it, and take any steps you can, you could possibly squeeze a few points out among women."
The strength of having the president announce initiatives at this time, Mr. Zogby adds, is that they answer the two questions voters have: What have you done for me lately, and what are you going to do for me?
The president's proposal would allot $27 million to help the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to handle cases of pay inequity and to help the Labor Department train women in nontraditional jobs. He also pushed a bill that is going nowhere in Congress, called the Paycheck Fairness Act, introduced by Sen. Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D) of Connecticut. The bill contains a new data-collection provision; a nonretaliation provision; and a provision for increased training, research, and pay-equity awards.
Susan Bianchi-Sand, executive director of the National Committee on Pay Equity, says while laws are in place to prohibit wage discrimination, they are being challenged in court.
Meanwhile, she says, studies show that when all the possible explanations for pay inequality are stripped away - such as education, age, training, seniority, and so on - "there is still an unexplained gap that people attribute to gender."
One solution, she says, lies in businesses undertaking pay-equity studies and adjusting their salaries - as Kodak recently did to the tune of a $13 million adjustment. Other ways to get at the problem, she says, is the route the president is suggesting - more disclosure and more enforcement.
The White House sees this initiative as an important first step.
"We want to make sure that the employers and employees all understand their rights and responsibilities on equal pay," says Bruce Reed, the president's domestic policy adviser.
*Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society