Senate Republicans Block Pay Disparity Measure

Lilly Ledbetter, whose equal-pay suit was overturned last year, greets Sen. Barack Obama before his vote on a bill to make it easier to sue in such cases.
Lilly Ledbetter, whose equal-pay suit was overturned last year, greets Sen. Barack Obama before his vote on a bill to make it easier to sue in such cases. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 24, 2008

Senate Republicans yesterday blocked legislation to make it easier for women and others alleging discrimination to sue their employers over unequal pay, blasting the measure as an attempt by Democrats to score political points before the fall presidential campaign.

The vote was delayed until 6 p.m. so the Democratic presidential contenders could make it back after a day of campaigning in Indiana. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) gave showcase speeches on the Senate floor.

Other Democrats spent much of the day hammering Republicans for opposing the measure, which aims to reverse a Supreme Court ruling from last May. "Politically, it's the dumbest thing they could ever do," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Women "are a majority of the vote," he said. "Issues like this will matter in this election."

Republicans accused Senate Democratic leaders of stage-managing the vote, pushing the bill without seeking a compromise. "We understand people have to run for president," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said. "But to have the schedule of the Senate completely revolve around the schedule of the Democratic presidential candidates strikes me as particularly ridiculous."

Among those who missed the procedural vote blocking the measure was the presumptive GOP nominee, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), who was campaigning in Kentucky. He has yet to state his position.

At issue is the Supreme Court's ruling in the case of Lilly Ledbetter, who for 19 years was the lone female supervisor at an Alabama tire plant. Months before she retired in 1998, Ledbetter learned that she was being paid thousands of dollars less than her male co-workers. She filed suit and was awarded more than $3 million by a jury. Last May, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that Ledbetter had waited too long to file her case. The court said she should have complained within 180 days of a specific discriminatory event.

The ruling stunned civil rights advocates, who said federal courts in nine of the nation's 12 circuits had for decades judged that the 180-day statute of limitations began running afresh with each discriminatory paycheck. Their congressional supporters quickly drafted legislation to set that standard into law. Under the bill, the 180-day clock would start ticking when a discriminatory decision is adopted, when a person becomes subject to that decision or when a person is affected by that decision, including with each new paycheck.

The White House has threatened to veto the bill, saying it would effectively eliminate the deadline for filing lawsuits over pay discrimination and subject businesses to claims over decisions long past. Last night, all but six Republican senators fell into line.

Some were clearly uncomfortable with the vote. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) said that workers should have more time to complain about unequal pay and that she could have supported the bill if there had been "an opportunity to write it a different way."

"I'm sure [the vote] will be spun as anti-equal pay," Hutchison said, but "there's definitely something I could have voted for."

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