- The Washington Times - Monday, June 4, 2012

The battle for women’s votes will play out in stark terms on the floor of the Senate this week when Democrats push a bill to make it easier for women to sue for claims of sex discrimination in pay — and see the bill defeated by a GOP-led filibuster.

President Obama made a personal pitch for the legislation Monday, leading a full-court press of liberal interest groups and Democrats on Capitol Hill who said Tuesday’s vote is a key test of Republicans’ willingness to work across party lines after last week’s poor job numbers.

“If Congress passes the Paycheck Fairness Act, women are going to have access to more tools to claim equal pay for equal work,” Mr. Obama said in a conference call with activists pushing the bill. “If they don’t, if Congress doesn’t act, then women are still going to have difficulty enforcing and pressing for this basic principle.”

Democrats trained their fire particularly on Mitt Romney, the GOP’s presumptive presidential nominee, who has yet to take a stand on the issue, and said Republicans in Congress are taking their cue from him.

“They don’t want to be drawn into a conversation on this issue and they’re hoping the vote gets drowned out,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.

Republican aides expect their party to be unified in opposing the bill, but Mr. Romney’s campaign has refused requests since April to take a public stand on the legislation. On Monday, a spokeswoman again declined to support or oppose the bill, instead saying that Mr. Romney “supports pay equity” as a concept.

The Paycheck Fairness Act would shift the burden from employees to employers to prove that pay discrepancies are business-related, not the result of sex discrimination.

It would allow class-action lawsuits that would assume all women are part of the class unless they specifically opt out. And it would give women the right to sue for compensatory or punitive damages. Right now, women are only able to collect lost pay and lawyers’ fees.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have announced their opposition, saying the bill creates a legal nightmare, and Republicans vowed to continue their opposition.

“This bill is a gift to trial lawyers, with dramatically increased litigation and uncapped damages liability,” said Joe Brenckle, a spokesman for Republicans on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “It will severely harm our economy by allowing the federal government to second-guess every hiring, pay and bonus decision made by United States employers.”

Democrats are bringing the legislation to the floor without going through the normal committee process, thus are short-circuiting the chance for the two parties to try to craft a bipartisan bill.

In 2010, the last time the legislation came to the Senate, it was defeated in a filibuster that drew support of all Republicans and Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat who is retiring.

Mr. Nelson’s office didn’t return a request for comment Monday.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat and the chief sponsor of the Senate bill, said she thinks every Democrat will vote for the bill this time and that “we’re very close to 60” — the number of votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

Women’s-pay issues have caused problems for Mr. Romney before. In April, his campaign policy advisers stumbled when they were unable to immediately say whether he supported the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, signed by Mr. Obama in 2009 and which women’s groups say was the predecessor to the Paycheck Fairness Act.