In defeat of Paycheck Fairness Act, Senate goes into deep campaign mode

Senate activity surrounding the Paycheck Fairness Act – it failed to get enough votes to overcome a GOP filibuster – more closely resembled the taping of campaign ads rather than a debate of the issue.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Lilly Ledbetter, the woman who has become a symbol for workplace equality, joins Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nev., right, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, as the Senate considered the Paycheck Fairness Act. The measure failed, with 52 votes for and 47 against.

With a little dramatic music, the Senate's party-line rejection of the Paycheck Fairness Act on Tuesday could have easily doubled for two dueling campaign ads.

Democrats and Republicans weren't arguing with each other before or after the legislation fell short – with 52 votes for and 47 against, the measure came up short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster.

Instead, both sides blew right past each other, straight to the TV cameras. Democrats decried another front in what they allege is a Republican "war on women," while Republicans tried to turn the spotlight back to the economy.

On the left, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland led a phalanx of Democratic women in support of the measure outside of the Senate chamber, ripping the GOP for standing against "equal pay for equal work."

A White House fact sheet on the issue cites US Census statistics as indicating that "on average, full-time working women earned 77 cents to every dollar earned by men for equivalent work."

The Paycheck Fairness Act would offer several additional protections for women in the workplace, including an increased ability to pursue punitive damages for unequal pay claims; prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who inquire about payment practices or who disclose their own salaries; and require businesses to prove that differences in pay between genders were rooted in business requirements.

Republicans say the bill only opens a door to needless litigation.

Democrats even had a campaign commercial standby: the celebrity endorser. Women's rights activist Lily Ledbetter marched from the House to the Senate with a half-dozen House Democrats to give a press conference before the vote. Mrs. Ledbetter's name is affixed to the first piece of legislation signed by President Obama, a law that broadened the ability for employees to sue employers for pay discrimination.

There was obligatory goading of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, chiefly by majority leader Harry Reid.

"The only Republicans who are against our common-sense measure are the ones here in Washington," Senator Reid said. "Even Mitt Romney has refused to publicly oppose this legislation."

Romney's campaign has not commented on the subject to an array of news organizations.

That reticence was on display among the Senate GOP caucus on Tuesday. On the right, only a single Republican – Sen. Dean Heller of Nevada – came to the Senate floor to debate the bill. Indeed, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky took the unusual tack of declining to fire back at his counterpart Reid's pointed criticisms during McConnell's opening remarks both Monday and Tuesday.

When the Senate's Republican leadership did speak up for their weekly press conference, it was as if the Paycheck Fairness vote was happening in another reality. Instead, Republicans stayed glued to their myriad critiques of Mr. Obama – instead of arguing Paycheck Fairness, they were deep into their “Greatest Gripes with the Obama administration:”

• McConnell hit the President for a lack of leadership on student loans.

Whip Jon Kyl of Arizona clocked Democrats for what he said was an inability to put forward proposals to head off spending cuts slated to hit on Jan. 1.

Sen. John Thune of South Dakota mocked the Obama administration's handling of the economy, including a 2010 op-ed by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner welcoming America to a "recovery summer."

Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming criticized Obama's healthcare reform law for increasing rates on health insurance plans offered by colleges and universities.

• Finally, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas pointed to new allegations of trouble in the gunwalking scandal along the Mexican border known as "Fast and Furious."

Asked why Republicans opposed the Paycheck Fairness Act, McConnell offered a terse response.

"This is issue is about rewarding plaintiffs lawyers for filing lawsuits," McConnell said. The Democrats’ “view is America suffers from not enough litigation."

What's next for the legislation? For reasons of procedural arcana, Reid voted against the measure in order to be able to resurrect it at a later date if need be.

But principally, Tuesday's vote will be pressed into service by Democrats as a campaign weapon.

"I'm putting my lipstick on – and I'm combat ready," Ms. Mikulski said, swiping a red rouge across her lower lip at a press conference after the vote.

Later, she added: "We're not exactly sure where the battlefield will be, but the fight is going to continue."

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