WASHINGTON — — A proposal to expand equal-pay protections for women, long championed by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, was thrust into the national political spotlight Wednesday in a Democratic effort to court female voters — a crucial demographic in this year's election.
The Paycheck Fairness Act has languished for years and faces tough odds again this year. But Democrats hope that by advancing the bill now they can send a compelling message to women weighing presidential and congressional candidates in the fall. Republicans have traditionally opposed the pay measure.
Democratic leaders say Mikulski's bill will bypass the Senate health committee and be sent to the floor when lawmakers return from a recess next month. The move comes as President Barack Obama and his top Republican rival, Mitt Romney, have increasingly tailored their messages to appeal to women.
"You're either for equal pay for equal work for women or you're not," Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in Congress, said during a news conference on Capitol Hill. "The facts speak for themselves."
Mikulski's legislation expands the landmark 1963 Equal Pay Act, which prohibits wage discrimination based on gender. The proposal limits the circumstances under which an employer can legally pay men and women differently. It also lets women sue employers for punitive damages if they can demonstrate they were treated unfairly — a major sticking point for business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Despite advances, women still take home 77 cents for each dollar earned annually by men, according to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, a Washington think tank. Advocates believe roughly 40 percent of that gap is based on differences in the types of occupations men and women choose. But they estimate that 25 percent to 40 percent of it is caused by discrimination.
Retail salesmen earn $620 a week on average compared with $466 for their female counterparts, according to the institute's analysis of U.S. Department of Labor Statistics. Male managers earn $1,406 a week on average, compared with $1,047 for women in similar positions.
"A woman is far more likely to spend her last years in poverty simply because the pay gap actually starts the minute she throws her graduate cap in the air," said Lisa Maatz, the top lobbyist for the American Association of University Women. "We have a pay gap that economists say cannot be explained simply by women's choices."
The Paycheck Fairness Act is the latest in a series of high-profile legislative proposals aimed at women this election year.
The Republican-led House and Democratic-controlled Senate are sparring over separate versions of a bill to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on shelters for battered women and victim-protection programs, for instance. And lawmakers have repeatedly tussled over proposed funding cuts to Planned Parenthood, which Democrats say could jeopardize women's health.
Opponents of the Paycheck Fairness Act say the measure would make it difficult for a business to justify legitimate pay differences between men and women; they also note there is no cap on punitive damages an employee may seek in court. Business groups have aggressively fought the measure in the past and are gearing up to do so again this year.
"If one looks beyond sound bites to the bill's actual provisions, it is easy to see how over-broad the bill is," Michael J. Eastman, executive director of labor law policy for the Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement. "Unlawful pay discrimination is abhorrent, but this bill is not a responsible way to address it."
Mikulski is one of her party's most ardent advocates on women's issues. In 2009, she successfully pushed through a law that extended the statute of limitations for suing an employer over wage discrimination. The bill was the first major piece of legislation Obama signed into law when he took office.
But she has had less success with the pay equality bill, which fell two votes shy of the 60 needed to advance when it last came up for a vote in 2010. Neither the Senate nor the House version of the bill has any Republican co-sponsors — an indication that its chances of success are next to nil.
Asked if she is confident she has the votes needed to pass the bill, Mikulski said she was "in the process of getting all the votes now."
Politically, it may not matter. Democrats will claim victory even if the bill fails by casting it as the latest example of what they have dubbed a "war on women" by Republicans. It is no coincidence that Democratic leaders chose to take up the bill as the presidential campaigns pivoted to women in recent weeks.
Obama had said previously he supports Mikulski's legislation. Romney has not offered a clear position; a campaign spokeswoman did not return a request for comment Wednesday.
Recent polling shows Romney is closing in on Obama's long-held advantage with women voters. A Quinnipiac University poll of Florida voters released Wednesday showed women in that crucial swing state are evenly divided, with 45 percent saying they will back Obama and 44 percent supporting Romney. The Republican's campaign has pushed hard in recent weeks to narrow the gap in female support by focusing on how the economic downturn has hurt women.
Democratic messaging on the Paycheck Fairness Act has already begun.
Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, linked the bill to the top political issue of this election, the economy, and called on her Republican colleagues to think hard about opposing it. As chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Murray is charged with electing Democrats to the Senate in a year when the party's majority is in jeopardy.
"To those Republicans who claim to be so concerned about the economy, now is your chance to sign on," Murray said. "When women are not paid what they deserve, middle-class families and communities pay the price."