WASHINGTON – Senate Republicans on Wednesday blocked legislation to make it easier for women and other victims of discrimination to sue their employers over unequal pay, blasting the measure as an attempt by Democrats to score political points before the fall presidential campaign.
The vote was delayed until 6 p.m. so the Democratic presidential contenders could make it back after a day of campaigning in Indiana. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama gave showcase speeches on the Senate floor.
Other Democrats spent much of the day hammering Republicans for opposing the measure, which aims to reverse a Supreme Court ruling from last May.
“Politically, it’s the dumbest thing they could ever do,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Women “are a majority of the vote,” he said. “Issues like this will matter in this election.”
Republicans accused Democratic Senate leaders of stage-managing the vote, pushing the bill without seeking a compromise.
“We understand people have to run for president,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. “But to have the schedule of the Senate completely revolve around the schedule of the Democratic presidential candidates strikes me as particularly ridiculous.”
Among those who missed the procedural vote blocking the measure was the presumptive GOP nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who was campaigning in Kentucky.
McCain, who was campaigning in New Orleans, said Wednesday he opposes the bill because it would lead to more lawsuits.
“I am all in favor of pay equity for women, but this kind of legislation, as is typical of what’s being proposed by my friends on the other side of the aisle, opens us up to lawsuits for all kinds of problems,” the expected GOP presidential nominee told reporters. “This is government playing a much, much greater role in the business of a private enterprise system.”
At issue is the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of Lilly Ledbetter, who was for 19 years the lone female supervisor at an Alabama tire plant. Months before she retired in 1998, Ledbetter learned that she was being paid thousands of dollars less than her male co-workers. She filed suit and was awarded more than $3 million by a jury. Last May, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Ledbetter had waited too long to file her case. The court said she should have complained within 180 days of a specific discriminatory event.
The ruling stunned civil rights advocates, who said federal courts in nine of the nation’s 12 circuits had for decades judged that the 180-day statute of limitations began running afresh with each discriminatory paycheck. Their congressional supporters quickly drafted legislation to set that standard into law. Under the bill, the 180-day clock would start ticking when a discriminatory decision is adopted, when a person becomes subject to that decision or when a person is affected by that decision, including with each new paycheck.
The White House has threatened to veto the bill, saying it would effectively eliminate the deadline for filing lawsuits over pay discrimination and subject businesses to claims over decisions long past. Wednesday night, all but six Republican senators fell into line.
Some were clearly uncomfortable with the vote. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said workers should have more time to complain about unequal pay, and that she could have supported the bill if there had been “an opportunity to write it a different way.”
“I’m sure (the vote) will be spun as anti-equal pay,” Hutchison said, but “there’s definitely something I could have voted for.”