The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Democrats hit major political wall in efforts to close gender pay gap, raise minimum wage

Republicans blocked another measure Tuesday, leaving Democrats scrambling to figure out path forward ahead of 2022 midterms

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) speaks during a Senate Budget Committee hearing Tuesday to discuss President Biden's fiscal 2022 budget request. (Greg Nash/Pool/AP)
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President Biden and Democrats in Congress suffered another setback in their push to boost millions of Americans’ paychecks, after the Senate on Tuesday opted against taking up a bill that supporters said aimed to ensure that women in the workforce earn the same as their male counterparts.

Even with Biden’s public advocacy — and nearly every Democrat voting to try to begin debate on the measure — party leaders could not overcome Republican opposition to advance one of the central promises they made in the course of the 2020 presidential campaign.

The defeat had been widely expected given the GOP’s history siding against the measure, known as the Paycheck Fairness Act, which Democrats have been trying to adopt in some form for nearly 30 years. Ahead of the vote, Democrats said they forged ahead anyway, aiming to “show people we’re trying, and this is the obstacle we’re facing,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the measure’s chief sponsor in the chamber.

But the failed vote nonetheless peeved Democrats, who initially hoped their majorities in Congress, even if razor-thin, might have helped them achieve one of their signature economic priorities. Adding to the political sting, it marked the second time in roughly four months that the Senate had failed to advance a major proposal targeting workers’ pay after Democrats had to pull their effort to raise the federal minimum wage.

Acknowledging the political stakes for their own party, Democrats on Tuesday said they do not plan to abandon either of the fights over workers’ wages and are actively exploring additional legislative avenues in the months to come.

“They will be huge issues in 2022, and they were huge issues in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “I really believe if we don’t get this work done across the board … not only will [the president’s] legacy be in peril but our majority will be in peril.”

Senior Democrats abandon backup plan on $15 minimum wage

Even in defeat, the Democrats’ latest gambit on the gender pay gap reflected the broader political challenges they face in the Senate this year. Biden and his allies have grand ambitions to improve the country’s infrastructure and ramp up federal spending for workers, students and low-income families. But Democrats possess only a tiebreaking majority, not the 60 votes required to avoid political head winds altogether — forcing them to consider uncomfortable compromises to advance their agenda.

The political dynamic has prompted some Democrats once again to ask whether it is time to eliminate the filibuster, which in effect would allow them to adopt major legislation in the Senate without working with Republicans or relying on arcane legislative maneuvers. Moderate Democrats have been reluctant to take the step, though, and one of the party’s pivotal swing votes, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), reiterated his firm refusal to weaken the filibuster in an opinion piece published over the weekend.

The stalemate has prevented Democrats from acting swiftly on a range of policy fronts in recent weeks, from advancing legislation to change voting laws to commissioning an investigation into the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. On Tuesday, though, the casualty was women’s wages.

The Paycheck Fairness Act seeks to address the fact that women earn 84 percent of what men do even in the same jobs with the same qualifications, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Murray and her Democratic colleagues said the legislation would empower women to pursue wage discrimination cases in response.

“We need to close the pay gap once and for all,” said Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), who has been introducing and pushing the bill in the House since 1993. She said the pandemic, which has left millions of women out of the workforce, had highlighted the disparity even further.

The covid-19 recession is the most unequal in modern U.S. history

House lawmakers adopted the measure in April, with almost every Republican opposing it. GOP lawmakers fully united against it in the Senate on Tuesday, denying Democrats the 60 votes they needed just to begin debating the bill. Earlier in the day, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) blasted the proposal as a “giveaway to the plaintiffs lawyers of America.” He described the vote at his weekly news conference as a Democratic strategy to turn June into a “check-the-box month with all of the extreme left-wing provisions they support coming out of the House.”

Similar political roadblocks befell Democrats’ earlier attempt to address another economic issue affecting workers — the long-unchanged federal minimum wage.

The trouble started in the spring, after Biden initially sought to raise the hourly rate to $15 as part of a $1.9 trillion coronavirus stimulus package. House Democrats successfully adopted the proposal, known as the American Rescue Plan, with its minimum wage boost intact. But the increase quickly faced political and procedural hurdles in the Senate, where backers including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) faced objections even within the Democratic Party, with which he caucuses. Lawmakers ultimately abandoned their efforts, promising to return to it later in the year.

Since then, Sanders and top Senate Democrats have joined Schumer in private huddles to try to reconcile differences within the party over the wage proposal. But they have failed to find common ground over the size of the wage increase or the categories of workers who could benefit from it. Sanders did not respond to a request for comment.

Democrats grapple with way forward on Biden agenda after Manchin throws up roadblocks

Biden, meanwhile, has tried to take limited steps on his own: He signed an executive order in April that requires federal contractors to pay a $15-an-hour minimum wage to their workers starting in 2022. The policy and other public attention has prompted some employers to announce their own wage increases, while some state legislatures have raised their hourly minimums in the absence of action in Washington.

A White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe internal thinking, said the president remains committed to raising the minimum wage. The aide also pointed to other programs implemented as part of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package that offered financial assistance to workers and their families, including another round of one-time stimulus payments.

Beyond that, the official pointed to the president’s infrastructure and families plans, which put aside $10 billion for federal labor enforcement agencies and propose new investments in child care. The administration says the spending would make it easier for workers, especially women, to participate in the labor force.

But House and Senate Democrats insist they are not done pressing the issue. On minimum wage, for example, lawmakers are already discussing other potential legislative vehicles to advance the increase out of concern it cannot pass on its own. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the chairman of the tax-focused Finance Committee, said he’s trying to woo additional support by proposing tax breaks for small businesses that may struggle to pay more to their employees.

“Democrats know this is an issue that is hugely important in terms of actually delivering,” Wyden said. “We focused on it [in 2020] and those of us who care deeply are going to stay at it until we deliver.”

Some liberal-leaning lawmakers, meanwhile, are eyeing other legislative vehicles — including the annual, must-pass bill authorizing Pentagon programs — as an option in the months to come.

“Democrats won the presidency, the House and the Senate on a mandate for bold change for working Americans, including a $15 minimum wage,” said Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), noting that the avenues include the measure known as the National Defense Authorization Act and other bills including infrastructure upgrades.

“We got elected to lead,” she said. “We need to act like it.”