WASHINGTON — A Democratic blitz this week for new 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 Wednesday in the Senate.
“Republicans in Congress have been gumming up the works,” Obama said Tuesday. “They’ve been blocking progress.”
By reviving a familiar line of attack from the 2012 campaign _ that Republicans are waging a “war on women” _ the president 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 if the push for equal pay would help Democrats but said it was likely that “opposition will hurt the GOP.”
Motivating women to come to the polls in November could be pivotal in Senate races in the South, where embattled female incumbents 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 one or two percent in your column could be the difference between winning and losing,” said Darrell West, vice president of governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
“Pay equity is a great issue (for Democrats) because women now are a majority of voters and they’re politically active,” West said.
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 or not a woman was running.
“The election is not going to be about this one issue,” he said.
The push for pay equity is part of an overall effort to position the 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 of Representatives.
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 they are all for equal pay for equal work. After a meeting of the House Republican Caucus, Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia 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, a Republican up for re-election in Kansas.
“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 press conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill featuring Republican women.
Jenkins’ Democratic challenger, attorney Margie Wakefield, recently attacked the congresswoman in an ad over her past votes against the Paycheck Fairness Act.
Jenkins said Tuesday that she supports equal pay for equal work, but she 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 Republican 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.
Democrats drove their campaign in a coordinated campaign of speeches, emails, press conferences and written statements.
Charly Norton, spokeswoman for Kentucky Democrat Grimes, slammed McConnell for insulting women, for example. Hagan’s campaign accused her likely Republican opponent, Thom Tillis, of killing a pay equity bill in the North Carolina legislature. Tillis is speaker of the state’s House of Representatives.
Republicans shot back with the accusation that Democrats are hypocrites for ignoring their own gender gap.
A McClatchy analysis in January found that women employees at the White House make 91 cents for every dollar men make, or an average salary of $76,516 for women, compared with $84,082 for men.
The female share of the federal workforce also has declined under Obama, while 63 percent of the civilian government workers who earned a salary of $100,000 or more last year were men.