Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press) Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press)

Expanding access to affordable, quality childcare could help close the wage gap, panelists told a Senate committee during a hearing on Tuesday.

The Senate Budget Committee, lead by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), held the hearing to discuss “Expanding Opportunity for Women and Families,” part of the continued push by Democrats to emphasize kitchen table issues, such as closing the wage gap between men and women, ahead of the midterm elections.

Sen. Jeff Session (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the committee and the lone Republican to attend the hearing, asked how women who “invest a lot of their time in raising” children can catch up to their male counterparts financially.

Heather Boushey, executive director and the chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, responded that greater access to affordable, quality childcare was one of the primary ways to close the equal pay gap. She said the United States “stands alone” in not supporting families when both parents work.

“One of the things we forget about child care is you can’t scrimp on it – you can’t get a cheaper cost child care and think that’s just going to be ok for your kids, right?” she said. “The kind of care is the kind of care that you need. You need a qualified teacher, it’s got to be a sufficient quality and we don’t go far enough to make sure every child in America has access to that kind of quality at a cost that families can afford, again, when they are young and don’t have a lot of money.”

Boushey said that although tax credits help, they do not fully address the costs of childcare, which she said ranged from $4,000 to $15,000 per year in 2011. She added that in some states, parents with subsidized childcare have to worry about slight increases in pay that push them over an income threshold and result in a dramatic increase in childcare costs, leading some women to turn down raises to avoid going over the “childcare cliff.”

AnnMarie Duchon, associate director of accommodation services at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, testified that the wage gap she experienced at her job, an estimated $12,000, amounted to a year of daycare for her 5-year-old daughter.

The Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, estimates that 10.5% of the wage gap is due to differences in women’s work histories.

Sarah Jane Glynn, associate director for women’s economic policy at Center for American Progress, who did not testify at the hearing, said that because women usually earn less the men, they are more likely to be the one to stay home if childcare becomes an issue.

“Much of this is caused by the fact that women are more likely to have to take time out of the labor force to provide family care,” Glynn said in an email. “This is exacerbated by two factors: lack of paid family leave (which facilitates returns to work) and the high costs of child care.”

Democrats have used the wage gap between men and women as a part of their 2014 election year strategy. Republicans have argued that the Democratic assertion that women make 77 cents on the dollar compared to men is incorrect.

Earlier this year, Republicans blocked the “Paycheck Fairness Act,” which would have made it illegal for employers to retaliate against a worker who inquires about or discloses her or his wages or the wages of another employee in a complaint or investigation.

Republicans have argued the Paycheck Fairness Act would lead to more lawsuits against employers and do little to help women since gender discrimination is already against the law.