WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats were unable to overcome a Republican filibuster of the Paycheck Fairness Act on Tuesday, with the chamber falling two votes short of the 60 needed to end debate and proceed to a vote on the measure that would help combat wage discrimination on the basis of gender.
The vote broke down along party lines with the exception of sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who sided with Republicans and voted against cloture. Not a single member of the GOP broke rank.
Observers closely watched the votes of Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Tex.) and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), all women senators who voted for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which provides basic protections against wage discrimination.
"Senate Republicans had their latest opportunity to do the right thing, work with Democrats to reduce wage inequality for women, and help the American families they support," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) in a statement after the vote. "This was a prime opportunity to enact the kind of common-sense, bipartisan solutions to our economic problems that the American people are demanding, but Republicans spurned it."
"Democrats are eager to work with Republicans to address our shared challenges, but compromise is a two-way street," he added. "I am hopeful that moving forward, Republicans put partisanship aside and focus on doing what's right and fair for the American people."
"Forty-five years after passage of the Equal Pay Act, it is unacceptable that women still earn, on average, 77 cents to the dollar earned by men," said National Women's Law Center Co-President Marcia Greenberger. "The law needs to be stronger. This persistent pay gap translates to more than $10,000 in lost wages per year for the average female worker. In this difficult economy, in which nearly 40 percent of mothers are primary breadwinners, women shoulder increased responsibility for supporting their families and cannot afford to have employers discounting their salaries."
Among other provisions, the Paycheck Fairness Act, which has already passed the House, would ensure that a law already on the books -- the Equal Pay Act of 1963 -- is properly enforced. It would also make sure that women aren't punished for seeking out information about what their male colleagues are earning in order to ensure they are being paid properly.
Opponents of the legislation, including Collins, have voiced concern that it would lead to "excessive litigation on to the small-business community." "This bill appears to go way beyond the Lilly Ledbetter Act and I am concerned what the impact would be," she said in September.
But in a Slate article, Center for American Progress senior economist Heather Boushey argued, "[I]t strains credulity to imagine that the law would have this attenuated effect. If businesses are worried about more litigation, maybe that's because women armed with knowledge about pay gaps would be more likely to bring suits that have merit to enforce the laws that already exist."
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) also voted for the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, but she was not present in Washington for the vote, instead in Alaska for the wrap-up of the ballot-counting process in her re-election fight against Republican Joe Miller.
UPDATE, 2:14 p.m.: Statement from the President on the vote:
I am deeply disappointed that a minority of Senators have prevented the Paycheck Fairness Act from finally being brought up for a debate and receiving a vote. This bill passed in the House almost two years ago; today, it had 58 votes to move forward, the support of the majority of Senate, and the support of the majority of Americans. As we emerge from one of the worst recessions in history, this bill would ensure that American women and their families aren't bringing home smaller paychecks because of discrimination. It also helps businesses that pay equal wages as they struggle to compete against discriminatory competition. But a partisan minority of Senators blocked this commonsense law. Despite today's vote, my Administration will continue to fight for a woman's right to equal pay for equal work.
UPDATE, 2:29 p.m.: Hutchison's office put out a statement also citing concern that the legislation would encourage more class action lawsuits and allows for uncapped compensatory and punitive damages.
"It is critical that victims of gender-based pay discrimination are given a chance to seek legal recourse through the court system," said Hutchison. "I believe current law, including the Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act, which I supported in 2009, protects against wage discrimination. We must ensure that the legal system is fair to both sides in any disagreement. The bill that failed to win cloture overextends by having no limits for compensatory and punitive damages, which I believe are adequately covered by the Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act."
In 2009, Hutchison also expressed concerns over the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and introduced an alternative bill -- which ultimately failed -- that she said would have "alleviated the concerns that many small business owners expressed to me."
UPDATE, 4:15 p.m.: Collins issued a statement explaining her vote:
I support equal pay for equal work. I voted in favor of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act last year because I believed the Supreme Court decision in the Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company case placed an unreasonable burden on a worker's ability to seek recourse in wage discrimination cases because it did not take into account the realities of the workplace. However, I am concerned that this particular legislation would unnecessarily impose increased costs and restrictions on small businesses in an already difficult economic climate. By eliminating caps on punitive and compensatory damages, this bill would expose the small business community to excessive litigation, force employers to devote significantly more resources toward legal protections, and could stunt job creation, ultimately hurting those its supporters say they're trying to protect.
In addition, this bill would require businesses to disclose previously confidential salary information to the government, and it relies upon faulty methods for identifying wage discrimination. That is why many business groups oppose this legislation, including the National Federation of Independent Businesses, our nation's largest small business advocacy group, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.