January 22, 2009 / 11:41 PM / 9 years ago

US Democrats flex new power, pass pay equity bill

WASHINGTON, Jan 22 (Reuters) - The new Democratic-led U.S. Senate flexed its expanded muscle on Thursday by overwhelmingly passing a bill to reverse a 2007 Supreme Court decision that made it tougher to sue for pay discrimination.

Approved 61-36, the measure is similar to one that Senate Republicans blocked last year, complaining it would lead to an explosion of lawsuits and be a bonanza for trial lawyers.

The legislation is a priority of organized labor, a longtime friend of Democrats, which argues it would give victims of discrimination fair hearings and just compensation.

Having increased their control of Congress and taken the White House in the November election, Democrats now expect to pass many of the bills previously stalled by Republicans and send them to President Barack Obama to sign into law.

“Taking up this bill as one of the first acts of this new Congress is a sign of what’s to come,” said Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat and a chief sponsor of the measure.

Other bills that Republicans stopped last year that Democrats now aim to pass include ones to give the economy a jolt with a massive new spending; ease global warming; lower prescription drug prices for the elderly, and provide residents of Washington, D.C., a voting representative in Congress.

The Senate-passed pay bill would lift tight time restraints to file claims that could expire before workers realize they were treated unfairly.

The House of Representatives passed its own version of the bill after the new Congress convened on Jan. 6. Differences must be resolved before a final measure can be sent to Obama.

The so-called Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act is named for an Alabama woman who lost her case in the Supreme Court in 2007.

Ledbetter, after 19 years on the job, sued her employer when she discovered she was the lowest-paid supervisor at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co GT.N plant where she worked, despite having more experience than several male co-workers.

A jury found she was the victim of discrimination.

But the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling, reversed what critics described as decades of legal precedent by declaring discrimination claims must be filed within 180 days of the first offense.

The court rejected the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s contention that each new discriminatory paycheck triggers a new 180-day statute of limitations.

The Senate-passed bill would amended the 1964 Civil Rights Act by putting the old EEOC standard into law, and cover pay discrimination based on gender, race, national origin, religion, age and disabilities.

The measure was an issue in last year’s election, particularly among female voters sensitive to pay inequity between the sexes.

On average, women in the United States are paid about 23 percent less than men, while minorities receive even less -- despite laws that mandate equal pay for equal work.

Democratic Rep. George Miller of California, a chief sponsor of the House version of the measure, predicted a final measure would soon be sent to Obama.

Sen. James DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, warned colleagues before the Senate vote that the bill could undermine efforts to end the recession by opening businesses to more lawsuits.

“Recessions are caused by uncertainty. This bill creates more uncertainty for the very businesses that we need to create jobs,” he said.

Additional reporting by Kevin Drawbaugh, editing by Philip Barbara

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