WASHINGTON - Shifting its focus on women’s issues from the bedroom to the pocketbook, congressional Democrats hope to challenge Republicans, including Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts, to a potentially incendiary debate over narrowing the pay gap between the sexes.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid is expected to bring the Paycheck Fairness Act before his chamber on Tuesday for a procedural vote, a calculated showdown primarily designed to exploit the political chasm on women’s issues between Democrats and Republicans and force Brown and other Republicans to explain to female constituents.
Brown faces a tight reelection contest against Democrat Elizabeth Warren. Some women’s groups in Massachusetts are pressuring him to reverse his vote against the bill in 2010, when it failed in the Senate.
“We strongly urge you to put women and their families first among your priorities and vote to ensure that women earn the same wage for the same work,’’ the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus, a nonpartisan group supporting women in politics, said in a letter to Brown.
“The gender wage gap is a harsh reality that impacts the lives of millions of American women and their families every day,’’ the letter said.
The Paycheck Fairness Act would build on the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and more recently the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, by requiring employers of companies with pay discrepancies to provide a reason for the gap. The bill would bar employers from retaliating against employees who discuss pay. The $15 million measure would also fund programs intended to teach women how to negotiate better salaries and require the federal government to create a salary databank that could help regulators better monitor pay gaps.
American women make about 77 cents for every dollar earned by men, according to data compiled by the US Census Bureau. In Massachusetts, women fare slightly better, making 81 cents for every dollar earned by men.
“We’ve got to understand this is more than just about fairness,’’ President Obama said during a conference call with reporters. “Women are the breadwinners for a lot of families, and if they’re making less than men do for the same work, families are going to have to get by for less money for child care and tuition and rent, small businesses have fewer customers.’’
Emily’s List, a national benefactor for Democratic women running for office who support abortion rights, took aim at former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the presumed Republican nominee for president, for declining to answer questions on his position on the legislation.
“Of course Governor Romney supports pay equity for women,’’ said a spokeswoman, Amanda Henneberg. “In order to have pay equity, women need to have jobs, and they have been getting crushed in this anemic Obama economy, losing far more jobs than men.’’
Henneberg declined to say whether Romney supports the proposed legislation or whether he would have signed the Lilly Ledbetter law, which eased the previous statutory limit on lawsuits.
While passage of the paycheck bill is unlikely, the unfolding debate is providing a talking point for Democrats.
Warren, freshly anointed over the weekend as Brown’s Democratic challenger, alluded to the paycheck debate during her speech to the state Democratic convention.
Her campaign, she said, stands “for women, equal pay, and access to birth control’’ - adding, “Boy, I never thought I’d need to say that in 2012.’’
Brown, who has bucked GOP leadership on a few issues, said he will join his party in blocking the legislation.
“I believe strongly in fair pay, and employers who discriminate against women should be prosecuted aggressively,’’ he said, but he called the legislation “flawed and overreaching.’’ He deemed the measure a job killer that would add to the burdens of small businesses.
Brown and other opponents of the legislation say it would restrict employers’ ability to pay wages based on performance, workplace hazards, and geographic considerations.
Aileen Gorman, director of the Commonwealth Institute, a network of female chief executives, entrepreneurs, and senior corporate executives, dismissed Brown’s reasoning.
“People need to be enlightened. He needs to be enlightened. Women doing the same job as a man need to get paid the same,’’ said Gorman, a Democrat and Warren supporter. “If you’re looking to get women voters, then he’s going about it all wrong. This stuff translates at the ballot box.’’
Brown’s office said he “strongly supports’’ the Ledbetter act and would have voted for its passage.
“Scott Brown is in a very tough fight, and now he’s airing commercials that say he’s a moderate, and this would be a great test,’’ said Evelyn Murphy, who served as the lieutenant governor of Massachusetts for one term in the 1980s and now leads the national WAGE Project, a Brookline-based group advocating for pay equity and the end of sexual discrimination in the workplace.Bobby Caina Calvan can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter @GlobeCalvan.