WASHINGTON — Republicans blocked a Senate bill Wednesday aimed at narrowing the pay gap between men and women, an election-year ritual that Democrats hope will help spur women to back them in this fall's congressional elections.
GOP lawmakers said the measure could hinder employers from granting raises, or permitting flexible hours in exchange for lower pay, for fear of costly lawsuits. For Democrats, the bill was the latest stressing income-fairness they are pushing this campaign season, a procession that includes proposals to extend jobless benefits, boost the minimum wage and help students and families afford college loans.
"Republicans in Congress continue to oppose serious efforts to create jobs, grow the economy, and level the playing field for working families," President Barack Obama said in a written statement after the vote. "That's wrong, and it's harmful for our national efforts to rebuild an economy that gives every American who works hard a fair shot to get ahead."
Republicans, whose campaign focus has been on an economy that is still recovering from a severe recession, said it was the Democratic bill itself that would wreak damage. They were backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.
"At a time when the Obama economy is already hurting women so much, this legislation would double down on job loss — all while lining the pockets of trial lawyers," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "In other words, it's just another Democrat idea that threatens to hurt the very people it claims to help."
Democrats pushed the same legislation the last two election years, 2012 and 2010, only to see Senate Republicans scuttle the measures.
The bill by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., is aimed at tightening the 1963 law that made it illegal to pay women less than men for comparable jobs because of their gender.
"When I hear all these phony reasons, some are mean and some are meaningless, I do get emotional," she said of arguments against the legislation. "I get angry. I get outraged. I get volcanic."
Mikulski was the latest Democrat to play off former CIA Director Michael Hayden's recent comment that Senate Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., was motivated by "emotional feeling" when she sought an investigation of the spy agency's harsh treatment of terrorism suspects.
Her measure would shrink the loopholes employers can cite to justify such discrepancies and prevent them from punishing workers who share salary information. It would also make class-action suits about paycheck unfairness easier and allow workers to seek punitive and compensatory damages.
Wednesday's vote was 53-44 for debating the legislation — seven fewer than Democrats needed to keep the bill moving forward. Every voting Republican was against continuing work on the measure.
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, who usually aligns with Democrats, voted with the GOP. He said later the bill ignored the real reasons for the pay gap between genders, such as companies that make it hard for women with children to continue working.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., switched to vote against the legislation — a maneuver that makes it easier for him to demand a future roll call on the bill. Top Democrats have promised to force Republicans to vote again on the issue before November.
"This won't be the last time they have to go home to their constituents and explain that they don't think this is a worthy issue," said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a member of the Senate Democratic leadership.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said discrepancies in pay between men and women are worth exploring. She said she opposed the Democratic bill because "perhaps this is more an exercise in political messaging than an effort to try to resolve what I believe is an issue."
Women consistently vote more often for Democrats than men do. They tilted Democratic in every election since 1976 but two: 2002 and 2010. In those two elections women divided about evenly, even as Republicans picked up congressional seats.
Women averaged 77 percent of men's earnings in 2012, according to Census Bureau figures. That is better than the 61 percent differential of 1960, but little changed since 2001.
While few deny workplace discrimination exists, politicians and analysts debate its extent.
Data shows that men tend to out-earn women at every level of education and in comparable jobs.
Yet women generally work shorter hours and are likelier to take lower-paying jobs. Sixty-two percent of the 3.3 million workers earning at or below the minimum wage last year were women, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.