WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies in Congress are making a concerted election-year push to draw attention to women's wages, linking Obama executive actions with pending Senate legislation aimed at closing a compensation gender gap that favors men.
Obama on Tuesday planned to sign an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against workers who discuss their pay. He also was to direct the Labor Department to issue new rules requiring federal contractors to provide compensation data that includes a breakdown by race and gender.
The Democratic-controlled Senate this week planned to take up legislation that would make it easier for workers to sue companies for paying women less than men because of gender. The legislation, like Obama's narrower executive order, would forbid companies from punishing workers who share salary information and would allow punitive and compensatory damages in lawsuits
Backed by business groups, Republicans are expected to block the bill when the Senate holds a showdown vote, probably Wednesday. The GOP derailed similar legislation in the Senate the past two election years, 2012 and 2010.
Even so, Democrats are pushing the bill, sponsored by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., as part of a campaign-season agenda designed to contrast their efforts to help middle-income voters with Republicans and to motivate pivotal Democratic-leaning voting blocs like women.
Underscoring the politics behind the efforts, Democrats were aggressively soliciting campaign contributions, accusing Republicans of standing in the way of pay equity. Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Chris Coons of Delaware, for instance, issued emails Tuesday drawing attention to the pay gap and directing supporters to a contribution site that was compiling contributions for House and Senate Democrats.
Republicans argued through their campaign committees that the Senate legislation would hurt women by restricting job flexibility and merit pay.
"Why is it that so many Republicans are content to allow a woman working the same hours and the same job to make less money than her male co-worker?" Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said as the Senate began debating the bill Tuesday. "It's hard to comprehend."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., did not specifically address the legislation. But he said the Democrats' recent congressional agenda shows they are "a party that's out of ideas, campaign-obsessed and utterly beholden to the far left."
Obama's executive actions are part of his drive to act on his own when Congress stalls on his policy initiatives. The executive order and the presidential memorandum to the Labor Department are his latest directives on wages, pay disparities and hiring targeting the federal government's vast array of contractors and subcontractors.
The National Labor Relations Board and some federal courts already have said that company pay secrecy rules are prohibited under the National Labor Relations Act. But cases against violators can only be brought by the NLRB on the basis of a complaint. The Senate bill, however, would spell out the prohibition and allow private lawsuits, which could be more financially penalizing than NLRB action.
Obama's executive order could serve as a stricter enforcement tool, said Jeffrey Hirsch, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
Hirsch, a former lawyer with the National Labor Relations Board, said such an order also would make federal contractors more aware of the prohibition and "more concerned with the outcome of not getting a contract rather than facing an NLRB case, which has very weak remedies."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation and 22 other business groups sent a letter to Senate leaders Friday stating their opposition to the Senate bill. They said it could outlaw some ways companies set salaries, such as paying more for professional experience or hazardous work, and entitle workers suing their employers to exorbitant penalties.
Census Bureau figures show that the annual earnings of women was 77 percent of what men earned in 2012, a difference that has barely budged over the past decade.
When measured by hourly earnings, that difference is a narrower 86 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The larger gap is in part because women tend to work fewer hours than men and because the annual figures includes items omitted from the hourly data, including tips and bonuses.
Even as Obama prepared to take steps to close the compensation gender gap, White House spokesman Jay Carney defended differences in pay at the White House. An analysis of staff salaries done last fall by the conservative American Enterprise Institute found the president's female aides were paid 88 cents for every dollar paid to men, about $65,000 to $73,729 annually.
Carney said Monday that the comparison is based on aggregate wages that include the lowest salaries at the White House "which may or may not be — depending on the institution — filled by more women than men." He said men and women in equivalent roles at the White House earn the same amount and that 10 of 16 department heads are women, earning the top White House salary of $172,200.