Last Friday, April 11, was Pay Inequity Awareness Day, or the day on which women's average earnings finally caught up -- more than three months later -- with the average earnings men had obtained by the end of 1996.

You don't have to be the dean of Harvard Law School to see something fundamentally unfair, unequal and undemocratic in that.

It was perfectly clear to Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), whose office drafted a resolution calling for equal pay for women for equal work. It was straightforward and did not call for any of the more controversial methods of repairing the wage gap.

In hopes of securing bipartisan support for the resolution, which was introduced on Thursday, Daschle's office sent it to the office of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.). There it fell into the hands of Robert Wilkie, Lott's legal counsel and a former top aide to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).

Wilkie, 34, a graduate of Loyola Law School who lost a congressional primary bid last year, has all the markings of a troglodyte in training. The resolution went back to Daschle's office Thursday with Wilkie's hen-scratching, a copy of his response shows. He had edited into it a bunch of nutty nonsense that you'd expect to hear from a gun-toting survivalist holed up in a shack in the Montana woods. "We would like to see the attached changes made prior to letting the resolution pass," he wrote.

Wilkie's changes make a mockery of an attempt to develop bipartisan national leadership on an issue that working women put at the top of their priority list: equal pay. No wonder Republicans have a gender gap among women voters.

Daschle's resolution opens with an acknowledgment that women now make up almost half of the work force. Wilkie added, "as more Americans are forced into the workplace just to pay of {sic} federal, state, and local taxes."

He changed "whereas many families depend on the pay of working women" to "whereas many families are forced to depend on the pay of working women because of burdensome federal regulations that drain 1.3 trillion dollars from the economy every year."

A straightforward clause decrying inadequate pay was changed to read: "Whereas oppressive taxes and government interference in the workplace are a burden for an entire family and sometimes force many Americans onto public assistance to provide for their families . . . "

"Whereas unfair pay disparities lead to inadequate savings for retirement and lower pensions for women" was changed to "Whereas unfair federal tax and regulators policy lead to," etc. He threw in a gratuitous phrase about homemakers, which is hardly relevant to a resolution about wages.

"Whereas the provision of equal pay helps business by improving productivity and reducing employee turnover" was changed to read: "Whereas America's tax burden has never been higher than the 30.4 percent reached in 1996 . . . "

Another clause calling for fair pay and equal access to education and training was changed to read: "Women have made great contributions to the United States workforce and can achieve much more when the market is freed from the dead hand of government bureaucrats, high taxes, and over regulation."

A clause calling for employers to comply with existing laws requiring them to pay equally for equal work was changed to read the "same" work. Wilkie also attached a string of clauses about the income benefits of finishing high school, followed by a call for Congress to require young women to finish high school as a condition of receiving welfare. Talk about a guy with an agenda.

Susan Irby, a spokesman for Lott, said that Lott wanted any resolution on pay to "incorporate the tax burden on working Americans."

"It just calls into question whether the majority leader understands the depth of the problem women face at work," said Susan Bianchi-Sand, the director of the National Committee on Pay Equity, which is spearheading efforts to get stronger teeth into equal pay laws. "The Republican Party needs to recognize this is top on the agenda for working women."

Equal pay goes right to the heart of how well women can support themselves and their families. This is about whether we can send our children to college and whether we'll be self-sufficient in retirement. It's about correcting systemwide discrimination in which women with college degrees had median incomes of $30,798 in 1995, while men with only high school degrees made $28,542 and men with college degrees made $42,602.

The wage gap isn't a gap: It's a yawning chasm and it's a disgrace. In Trent Lott's office, however, it becomes a bad joke.