Mitt Romney survived an April skirmish over women's pay, but he and fellow Republicans are about to face a tougher test as the Senate takes up the Paycheck Fairness Act — the next big fight in pay equality between the sexes.
Democrats call the legislation the logical follow-up to 2009's Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which granted women more time to file discrimination lawsuits. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has scheduled a vote on the new bill next week, when the upper chamber returns from its Memorial Day holiday.
Business groups are opposed to the new legislation, saying it would create a legal morass — but Mr. Romney, the GOP's presumptive presidential nominee, has been silent.
His campaign didn't respond to five messages left over the past week seeking his stance on the Paycheck Fairness Act. In April, when he was fending off questions about his stance on women's compensation, his campaign would only say he "supports pay equity" but would not say any more about the new legislation.
"Governor Romney only says that he wouldn't change existing law, raising questions about why he feels the need to parse his words on issues that are so significant to the security of women and families," said Ben LaBolt, President Obama's campaign spokesman. "Would he sign a veto of Lilly Ledbetter? Why won't he express support for the Paycheck Fairness Act?"
For his part, Mr. Obama is an unabashed supporter. In 2009, he made the Lilly Ledbetter Act the first bill he signed into law, and he has repeatedly pushed for Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act.
Democrats tried in 2010 but saw the bill fall two votes shy of the 60 needed to overcome a Republican-led filibuster. Democrats hold an even narrower majority now, making it unlikely they'll be able to overcome another Republican filibuster next week.
The legislation would place the onus on businesses to prove pay discrepancies are business-related, not the result of sex discrimination. It also 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 is opposing the legislation and will send a letter later this week urging senators to defeat it, arguing it would spawn frivolous lawsuits.
"This is going to be probably one of the most important labor employment votes of the year, and we take it seriously," said Michael J. Eastman, director of the chamber's labor law policy division.
Republicans, however, have been mostly silent.
Mr. Obama and fellow Democrats have charged that Republicans are angering women in numerous ways, including trying to overturn new rules that would require most employers to offer health insurance plans that pay for contraceptives.
Mr. Romney stumbled last month when his campaign staffers were unable initially to say whether he supported the Lilly Ledbetter Act. His campaign eventually said he did support that legislation — though almost all Republicans in Congress had voted against it.
Mr. Reid said the Paycheck Fairness Act is the next litmus test.
"Republicans deny they're waging a 'war on women,' yet they've launched a series of attacks on women's access to health care and contraception this year," he said as he announced next week's scheduled vote. "Now they have an opportunity to back up their excuses with action."
The issue already is popping up in multiple Senate races, including in Ohio, Nevada and Michigan, as Democratic candidates seek to push the issue. In Virginia, former Gov. Tim Kaine, the Democrats' likely Senate nominee this year, has sent several emails urging supporters to sign a petition pushing the legislation.
"This one is a no-brainer, and I'm stunned that it's even the least bit controversial," Mr. Kaine said. "Of course women deserve equal pay for equal work. It's time that we moved beyond these tired social divisions, and I'm asking for your help to make a difference."
Former Sen. George Allen, the front-runner for the Republican nod in the race, has not taken a stand on the legislation.
"It's unfortunate that Washington is playing politics — there is no question George Allen supports pay equality for women," Allen spokeswoman Emily Davis said.
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