Republicans on Tuesday filibustered Democrats’ latest election-year effort to stoke the “war on women” issue, dooming a bill that would have opened up far more avenues for women to sue businesses when they suspect pay discrimination.
Democrats fell more than a half-dozen votes shy of the 60 needed to head off the filibuster, but said they’ll force the Republicans to vote on it again in the walk-up to this year’s election.
“We’re not going to let this bill die,” said Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, who challenged women to push the fight. “Put on your lipstick, square your shoulders and let’s fight for this new American revolution where women are paid equal pay for equal work.”
The legislation, known as the Paycheck Fairness Act, would shift burdens of proof toward businesses to defend their pay decisions, and would give women the right to sue for compensatory and punitive damages. It would allow women to file a class-action suit and would make them specifically have to opt out of the class.
In addition, the bill would prevent companies from retaliating against employees who share their own pay information.
Republicans said the vote was about politics, not policy, and girded for more attacks by Democrats who argue that Republicans have repeatedly voted this year against women’s interests.
“The only winners under this legislation would be trial lawyers,” said Sen. Dean Heller, a Nevada Republican who has written a different bill that he said would get at the problem by focusing on information rather than lawsuits.
He said his legislation would protect those seeking pay information that could help them determine whether discrimination is going on — including protections for whistleblowers. His bill was just introduced this week and was not voted on.
President Obama, who has endorsed the Paycheck Fairness Act, called Tuesday’s vote “incredibly disappointing” and said equal pay should be a key part of economic recovery plans.
On the other side, business groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are opposing the bill, and warned they would consider Tuesday’s vote when grading lawmakers this year.
The bill had the support of all 53 Democrats, though the final vote was 52-47 after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid switched his vote to “no” — a common parliamentary procedure that gives Mr. Reid the power to ask for a revote in the future.
One of those voting for it was Sen. Ben Nelson, Nebraska Democrat, who switched his vote from 2010 — the last time the bill came up — when he voted with the GOP to block it.
“Thank you, Ben,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, called out after him as he voted and left the floor.
A half-dozen women from the House came to the Senate to watch the vote, led by Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, who is sponsoring a companion bill on the House side.
But that legislation is unlikely to see daylight in that chamber, which is controlled by the Republicans and which was likely to block the Senate bill even if it had cleared the upper chamber Tuesday.
No Senate Republicans voted for the legislation, though Mitt Romney, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, still hasn’t taken a stand on it.
That’s opened the former Massachusetts governor to attacks from Democrats who say he could sway his party’s lawmakers if he would get involved in the debate.