- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 10, 2009

House Democrats put their beefed up majority to work Friday to pass two bills that ease limits on pay discrimination lawsuits, the first pieces of legislation passed this session, and also for pet liberal causes pushed by President-elect Barack Obama in the campaign.

In an early partisan split, Democrats represented the bills as blows against sexism and discrimination, but Republicans opposed them as pay days for trial lawyers.

Meanwhile in a Senate hearing, Rep. Hilda L. Solis, the California Democrat tapped by Mr. Obama to head the Labor Department, appeared on her way to an easy confirmation, despite Republican frustration with her reluctance to answer key questions.

The pay-equity bills, which passed the House in near party-line votes, would extend the time period in which women can file pay discrimination lawsuits and would let them sue for more money while making companies meet higher standards to justify pay disparities.

“Pay discrimination, anywhere, is an attack on the dignity of every woman in every workplace in America,” House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, said before the vote. “When workers face unfair pay, they should find us standing on their side, not throwing up technicalities and roadblocks on the way to equality.”

Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon of California, the ranking Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, said pay discrimination is wrong and has rightly been outlawed for 46 years.

“But the legislation being hastily advanced by the Democratic Congress does not advance the cause of nondiscrimination. It merely advances the economic interests of trial lawyers looking to cash in on this dismantling of longstanding civil rights law,” he said. “Particularly in the face of today’s economic turmoil, we should not be handing out trial lawyer giveaways that will jeopardize job creation and retiree security.”

The bill extending the time in which victims can file pay discrimination suits, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, was named after the woman whose case against Goodyear Tire Co. was denied by the Supreme Court because she didn’t file suit within 180 days of her first paycheck. Under the bill, each paycheck would be treated as a instance of discrimination.

Mrs. Ledbetter appeared with Mr. Obama on the campaign trail as he embraced the equal pay issue.

In the Senate confirmation hearing, Republicans expressed frustration that Mrs. Solis declined to state her opinion on a number of hot-button labor issues, including state right-to-work laws and a proposal on union organizing that is a top priority of the AFL-CIO.

Mrs. Solis told the committee she was “reviewing” the issue and was “not prepared to make a statement at this time” on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which union leaders say would greatly improve their leverage in trying to organize individual work sites.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and other leading business lobbies are fiercely opposed to the bill.

Mrs. Solis and Mr. Obama, when he was in the Senate, were co-sponsors of EFCA, and the president-elect reaffirmed his support for the bill after his election in November. Mrs. Solis promised repeatedly to “review” contentious business-labor issues raised by the panel and said she had not yet talked to Mr. Obama about the bill since the election.

“I would hope we will have the time to know what your opinion is before the time we have a confirmation vote” in the committee, said Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican.

“I do know that the members that posed some of those questions will expect a little more definitive answer before the vote on confirmation is done,” added Wyoming Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the panel’s ranking Republican member.

But Mrs. Solis won strong endorsements from committee Chairman Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and other Democrats. Many said the department had been neglected for the past eight years under President Bush.

“From my perspective, this is the very best appointment that President-elect Obama has made,” said Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent.

The EFCA bill is seen by many as a key early indicator of Mr. Obama’s governing style.

The AFL-CIO and other labor groups were major backers of his campaign, but pushing the bill early in the new Congress virtually guarantees a bitter partisan fight and a clash with business groups.

“No other issue on the political horizon today epitomizes the split between labor and business better than this one,” according to political analyst Charlie Cook in the survey on the new Congress published this week. “Nothing else would decimate the coalitions that Obama and Senate Democrats will need to put together to move other legislation that is more essential in turning the economy around.”

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