OPINION: Senate Dems flex legislative muscle on fair pay

By a vote of 61 to 36, the Senate passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act this week, a bill that had broad support from civil rights organizations, the labor movement, and women's equality groups. In short, key Democratic Party constituencies (i.e. sections of the core forces of the working-class movement) saw this bill as a top priority, and congressional Democrats pushed it through. In 2008, the same bill stalled in the Senate on a Republican filibuster.

So was the floor fight for passage of this bill a test of how well Senate Democrats will do with their new majority? Quite possibly. The obvious difference is the shift in the balance of forces in the Senate after the Nov. 4th election. With a projected total of 59 Senators who will caucus with the Democrats (pending the court decision on the Franken-Coleman race in Minnesota), Senate Democrats should be feeling more and more confident about their power.

Still, without the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster, Democrats and their supporters expressed concerns that the Republicans would use the filibuster to stall and hamper any progressive legislation. With good reason too; Republicans filibustered a record 94 times in the previous session of Congress. They blocked bills that would have created a timeline for withdrawal in Iraq, improved funding for veterans, fair pay legislation, the Employee Free Choice Act, measures that would have invested more in renewable energy sources, better funding for anti-poverty programs, health care, and education and other reforms that would benefit working families. Imagine that.

On Ledbetter, the Republicans put up a fight. They insisted that people who sue for discrimination often make it up, and they claimed that forcing employers to treat workers fairly is actually an unfair demand to make on employers. They tried to weaken the bill with amendments that failed one after another. One Republican even tried to poison the bill with a National Right to Work amendment.

In the end, despite that fact that three Democratic Senators were missing for the vote (Kennedy is ill, Minnesota hasn't sent Franken yet, and Clinton had not yet been replaced), the bill passed comfortably. And because the House has already passed it, the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act will likely be one of the first pieces of major legislation, President Obama signs into law.

Don't get too confident, though. The Ledbetter bill's companion, the Paycheck Fairness Act, is still pending. That bill would create stiff penalties on employers who punish workers who talk with one another about their wages and would tighten restrictions on how employers can justify unequal pay for equal work. In addition, Republican Senators have expressed open hostility, rather than congenial opposition as is traditional among Senators, to the Employee Free Choice Act.

It is quite possible that the Democrats will need all 59 of their votes and one or two defectors from the other party to see these bills pass. More importantly, the core forces of the working-class movement will have to raise a stink to make sure the bill stays on the agenda. Labor unions and labor affiliated groups like the AFL-CIO and American Rights at Work have begun a massive public relations campaign on a national and state level to mobilize support for the bill, especially in states where Republican Senators might feel the heat at reelection time.

After a big people's victory on Nov. 4th and the historical celebration on Jan. 20th, there is no time or room for resting on our laurels. Struggles for passage of additional working-class legislation should not be left up to the Senate Democrats alone to wage.