The Washington Post

Democrats in Congress have hit a wall in efforts to close the gender pay gap and raise the minimum wage.

- BY TONY ROMM tony.romm@washpost.com

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 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.”

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.

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 longunchan­ged 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.

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 the 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 to authorize 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.”

 ?? Salwan Georges/the Washington POST ?? Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT.), left, and Ron Wyden (D-ore.) have been at the forefront of efforts to raise the federal minimum wage.
Salwan Georges/the Washington POST Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT.), left, and Ron Wyden (D-ore.) have been at the forefront of efforts to raise the federal minimum wage.

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