Democrats hoping equal pay issue will mobilize female voters

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WASHINGTON -- A Democratic blitz this week for new executive orders and laws promising equal pay for women is a key agenda item the party hopes will boost turnout this fall among its most loyal voters -- a crucial strategy in a midterm election, when turnout tends to drop.

President Barack Obama signed two executive actions, which will bar federal contractors from retaliating against employees for comparing salaries and require contractors to report compensation data to the government by gender and race.

At the same time, Democratic lawmakers launched an assault on Republicans in Congress for opposing legislation that would expand measures to prevent gender-based pay discrimination nationwide. That bill, the Paycheck Fairness Act, is expected to fail a procedural vote today in the Senate.

"Republicans in Congress have been gumming up the works," Mr. Obama said Tuesday. "They've been blocking progress."

Pennsylvania state Rep. Erin Molchany, D-Mount Washington, attended the executive order signings and met in a small group with Mr. Obama. She said she had told him previously, when he visited the U.S. Steel plant in West Mifflin, Pa., that she had introduced legislation on pay equity in Pennsylvania's state House. "He said, 'Thank you -- we need to get this done,' " she said.

Ms. Molchany's bill would narrow the definition of factors other than sex -- education, training or experience -- that could justify, outside a seniority or merit system, paying one employee more than another. It also would ban requirements that workers keep their pay secret.

State lawmakers and Corbett administration officials also gathered Tuesday at the Capitol in Harrisburg urge a study of Pennsylvania workplace pay disparity. "We want every man and every woman who is looking for a job in this state to be employed, and we want them to receive a fair wage for a fair day's work," said Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, a Republican.

By reviving a familiar line of attack from the 2012 campaign -- that Republicans are waging a "war on women" -- Mr. Obama and fellow Democrats aim to capitalize on the party's longstanding edge among women voters in this fall's elections for control of Congress.

They also hope to force Republicans to oppose popular measures and thus alienate women voters. One senior Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal strategy, said it was unclear whether the push for equal pay would help Democrats, but that it was likely that "opposition will hurt the GOP."

Motivating women to come to the polls in November could be pivotal in races in the South, where embattled female incumbent Sens. Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., face tough re-elections.

A strong women's turnout also would help Democratic candidates Michelle Nunn in Georgia and Alison Lundergan Grimes in Kentucky, both seeking Senate seats now held by Republicans.

"Several of those states are going to come down to a few percentage points, so anything that would shift 1 or 2 percent in your column could be the difference between winning and losing," said Darrell West, the Brookings Institution's vice president of governance studies. "Pay equity is a great issue [for Democrats] because women now are a majority of voters, and they're politically active."

Nathan Gonzales, deputy editor of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report, noted that Democrats tend to attract single and minority women, while married women tend to trend Republican. But he was skeptical that it would make the difference in close races, whether a woman was running or not. "The election is not going to be about this one issue," he said.

The pay-equity push is part of an effort to position Democrats as champions of the middle class. Earlier this week, Senate Democrats won passage of extended jobless benefits, a bill that has no chance in its current form in the Republican-led House. Later this spring, Democrats are expected to renew their call for a vote on raising the minimum wage to $10.10. Another proposal would make child care more affordable.

Republicans dismiss this "fair shot for everyone" agenda as little more than posturing. "Political show votes," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

But Republicans were careful Tuesday to stress that they are all for equal pay for equal work. After a House Republican Caucus meeting, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said that rather than support the Democrats' legislation, "it's probably better for us to sit down and see how we can make sure that the law is being properly implemented, rather than play politics with this."

Democrats want voters to believe that Republicans don't support women, said Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., who is up for re-election. "Many ladies I know feel like they are being used as pawns and find it condescending that Democrats are trying to use this issue as a political distraction from the failures of their economic policies," she said at a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday of GOP women.

Ms. Jenkins' Democratic challenger, attorney Margie Wakefield, recently attacked the congresswoman in an ad over her past votes against the Paycheck Fairness Act. Ms. Jenkins said Tuesday that she supports equal pay for equal work, but argued that further government regulations aren't necessary because it's already illegal to discriminate against women in the workplace.

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., is leading an effort to get votes on a GOP alternative. Her plan would allow employees to discuss their salaries without fearing retaliation from employers. "We want to equip not just women but also men with the tools that they would need, with the information that they would need, to determine if they are being discriminated against," she told reporters.

Post-Gazette staff writer Karen Langley contributed.

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