WASHINGTON -- Senate Democrats failed yesterday to overcome a threatened Republican filibuster of a bill that would loosen the restrictions on the length of time in which workers could file pay discrimination claims against their employers.
The 56-42 vote was split largely along party lines. Six Republicans joined all but one of the Democrats and independents in attempting to block the filibuster, which required 60 votes for success. Two Republicans, including presumptive presidential nominee John McCain of Arizona, did not vote.
The legislation, already passed by the House, would circumvent the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision last summer that federal law imposes a tight deadline - 180 days from the date of the first paycheck received - for employees to file pay discrimination complaints. The Senate vote means that, for the time being, that decision will remain in force.
"We think that this bill is primarily designed to create a massive amount of new litigation in our country, and I think that is the reason for the resistance to its passage on our side," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.
The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, endorsed by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, was brought up this week in honor of Tuesday's Equal Pay Day, established by civil rights advocates to call attention to a wage gap that has women earning 77 cents for every dollar earned by men.
Ledbetter sued Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in Gadsden, Ala., six months before retiring in 1998, after she found documents showing that she earned as much as 40 percent less per month than men of her same position. She started working for Goodyear in 1979.
A jury awarded her $223,776 in back pay and almost $3.3 million in punitive damages. But Goodyear appealed, arguing that she had filed her claim too late, and the appellate court and the Supreme Court concurred.
Even if the bill is eventually approved, President Bush has threatened to veto it, meaning that Democrats would have to generate crossover support to have a chance of gaining the two-thirds vote for an override. As a result, the bill's support among Democrats is largely symbolic.
In a presidential election year, Democrats see the issue as one where they have the moral high ground and can argue that they are fighting for working, middle-class Americans. Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, the party's presidential candidates, both returned to Washington and voted for the bill. It was the first time both had spoken on the Senate floor in months.
"If you work hard and do a good job, you should be rewarded, no matter what you look like, where you come from or what gender you are," Obama said.
"Clearly, we have not finished the business of equality in the workplace, and equal pay for those who do the same job," Clinton said. "This is the law we had until the Supreme Court changed it."
The Supreme Court decision is controversial because it could enable businesses to continue paying employees in a discriminatory fashion for their entire careers if they do not dispute their pay within 180 days of receiving their first check.
The bill's supporters argue that until the ruling, the accepted legal view was that any discriminatory paycheck could be considered a violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bans discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin or religion. Supporters say the 180-day limit was intended to be applicable to any paycheck, not just the first paycheck, and argue that it's difficult for employees to find out what co-workers earn in such a short time frame.
"The Supreme Court's unfortunate decision in the Ledbetter case a year ago severely undermined the law. It has to be changed," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat and chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.
"Our Republican friends want to say, 'Oh, no, we're going to permit discrimination against women because they didn't have adequate notice that the discrimination was taking place.'"
Ben DuBose writes for the Los Angeles Times.