Senate Republicans put the brakes Wednesday on a Democratic bill that sought to close the pay gap between men and women.
Wednesday's vote was 53-44 – enough support to halt GOP tactics aimed at derailing the legislation, but seven votes short of the 60 needed to prevail.
Among those voting no on the bill was Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, who explained to CNN in an interview this week that “The proposals before the Senate now are really geared toward making it easier to sue an employer.”
He said that while he could appreciate the political value of bringing attention to the paycheck discrimination against women, this particular measure “isn’t going to solve the core of the problem.”
He added, “Meanwhile, an entire generation of young women is caught in low paying jobs with no way to emerge from that into a better paying job.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) who appeared on Fox News Channel this week to voice his opposition to pay equality legislative proposals, was listed as not having voted.
Like Rubio, Cruz accused Democrats of pushing the equal pay issue as a political ploy they hope will reward them in this fall’s congressional elections.
“They’ve written these bills because they know that they won’t pass, and they’re doing it just to score political points,” he said. “This has nothing to do with equal pay for equal work. That’s been the law for decades.”
The bill would narrow the factors businesses can cite for paying women less than men in the same jobs, and bar employers from retaliating against workers who share salary information. It also would make it easier to bring class-action lawsuits against companies and let victors in such lawsuits win punitive and compensatory damages.
The outcome on the Senate floor was not a surprise, but Democrats were playing to a wider audience.
With public opinion polls showing Democratic voters are less enthusiastic than Republicans this year, and therefore less likely to make it to the polls, party officials aimed the measure at women, who historically lean more toward their party than men. They also cast the issue as a crucial one for the middle class because so many families rely on female wage-earners — and promised to revisit it before Election Day.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md)., the measure's sponsor, said, "I want everyone to know, everyone in the Senate and everyone in the United States of America, though we lost the vote, we refuse to lose the battle. We are going to continue the fight."
Wednesday's bill was the latest in a campaign-year parade of measures Democrats hope will push sympathetic voters to the polls this November. Others include proposals to extend expired unemployment benefits, raise the minimum wage and make student loans more affordable.
This is the third consecutive election year in which Senate Democrats have pushed a bill making it harder for employers to pay women less than men in comparable jobs — and easier for aggrieved workers to sue. Republicans have shot it down each time.
"For reasons known only to them, Senate Republicans don't seem to be interested in closing wage gaps for working women," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Every Republican who weighed in voted to block the bill. They were joined by Sen. Angus King, an independent from Maine, who normally sides with Democrats. After the vote, King called his decision "very difficult," but said that the measure didn't address the real causes of pay inequity, such as making workplaces more family friendly.
Reid switched his vote to "no" to give himself the procedural ability to quickly call up the measure for a future vote, which Democrats have pledged to do.
Reid's GOP counterpart faulted him for blocking Republican proposals that would cut taxes, allow more flexibility for workers' hours and take other steps they said would protect jobs and help employees.
"It's time for Washington Democrats to stop protecting trial lawyers and start focusing on actually helping the people we were sent here to represent," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
The battle was suffused with the politics of an election year in which the GOP is expected to tighten its hold on the House and possibly capture control of the Senate.
Joined by Democratic lawmakers and Lilly Ledbetter at the White House, President Barack Obama took a swipe at the GOP on Tuesday. Ledbetter's claims of pay inequity by her employer led to the 2009 anti-discrimination statute bearing her name, the first bill Obama signed as president.
"Republicans in Congress have been gumming up the works," said Obama, adding later: "America, you don't have to sit still. You can make sure that you're putting some pressure on members of Congress about this issue."
McConnell cited statistics showing how women's income has fallen and their poverty rate increased under Obama.
"It's important to kind of put in place the record of the current administration with regard to women," McConnell said. Obama took office during the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
As if to underscore the political sensitivity of the debate, McConnell held his usual Tuesday session with reporters accompanied only by Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who was pushing a narrower version of the legislation. Typically McConnell faces the cameras joined by the top members of the Senate GOP leadership, who are all men.
Paycheck discrimination based on gender has been illegal since the 1960s. The Ledbetter law extended the time people have to file lawsuits claiming violations of that law.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.