As expected, a bill intended to close the gender pay gap fell short of the 60 votes needed to advance through Congress on Wednesday morning, with a vote of 53-44.
"I want everyone to know, everyone in the Senate and everyone in the United States of America, although we lost the vote, we refuse to lose the battle," said lead sponsor Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski. "We're going to continue the battle."
All Democrats voted for the measure, except for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who switched his vote to no for procedural reasons so that he can bring the bill back up. Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with Democrats, also voted no.
The Paycheck Fairness Act is part of Senate Democrats' election-year agenda, which includes measures such as a minimum-wage increase. All day Tuesday, which was Equal Pay Day, Democratic candidates and committees messaged on the bill, and President Obama signed two executive actions relating to equal pay.
The Paycheck Fairness Act, which failed to garner any Republican support, would have done a couple of things. For one, it would have made it illegal to retaliate against employees who share or ask for wage data in the course of a complaint or investigation — the thinking being that part of eliminating gender pay discrimination is increasing transparency. The act would have also make employers liable to civil action on gender pay discrimination matters, and would have directed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to collect gender and racial wage data from employers.
This same bill came up in 2012, and also failed to advance.
Republicans have charged that the Paycheck Fairness Act is redundant, saying that it's already against the law to discriminate on the basis of gender. They also believe that the law will lead to an explosion of lawsuits and that the statistic most often noted by Democrats — that the average woman makes 77 cents for every dollar the average man makes — is misleading and doesn't take into account the differences in background and roles of women in the workforce.
Democrats spent all day Tuesday trying to paint Republicans as callous on the question of pay equity. "This issue boils down to a fundamental question: Whose side are you on?" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said. "As usual, the Republicans are siding with the rich and not obviously being too concerned about what's happening with women in America not getting paid as much as men for doing the exact same work."
But Republicans said that they do care about pay equity. Senators offered a few amendments to the bill, including one from Sen. Deb Fischer of Nebraska. Other Republican proposals, they say, would allow for greater flexibility for working women.
"As a woman and as one that has two daughters, I've always supported equal pay for equal work, as have all of us," said Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a member of the House leadership. "What we're promoting as Republicans are those policies that are going to empower women and everyone, give people freedom and flexibility, jobs, higher paychecks and the opportunity for a better life."
The issue is already playing out in a number of races. Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado told supporters via email yesterday that his challenger, Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, has previously blocked the measure in the House, "choosing Washington partisanship over fairness and opportunity for Colorado families."
To that, the Republican National Committee accused Udall of hypocrisy, saying that his female staffers on average earn less than his male staffers.
That dynamic mirrors the national one; while Democrats accuse Republicans of not backing equal pay for equal work, Republicans shoot back that women working in the Obama White House earn less on average than men. That is in large part due to the difference in experience and roles that women hold.
Despite the Paycheck Fairness Act failing Wednesday, don't expect this issue to fade from the spotlight, Democrats say.
Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer said Tuesday, "Like unemployment insurance, we'll come back, and back, and back."