By Donna Smith
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked an election-year bid by Democrats for legislation they said would discourage employers from paying women less than they pay men for the same job.
In a party-line vote, Democrats, who control the Senate, failed to muster the 60 votes needed to advance the legislation backed by President Barack Obama.
The issue is part of an election-year effort by Obama and congressional Democrats to woo women voters ahead of November 6 elections.
Public opinion polls show Obama has more backing among women than Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. With some recent surveys showing Romney improving his support among women, Democrats have aggressively sought to maintain their advantage by advertising what they call a Republican "war on women."
The party-line vote on the Paycheck Fairness Act will help Democrats deliver that message in campaign speeches and advertising.
Critics said the law would spur a rash of lawsuits against employers at a time when the U.S. economy is struggling to create jobs. But backers point to data showing that women on average are paid 77 cents for every dollar earned by men doing the same job.
"When women get a mortgage, we don't get a 23 percent discount," said Democratic Senator Barbara Mikulski, the bill's chief sponsor. "When we go to buy food, we don't get a 23 percent discount. When we go to pay our utility bills, they don't say you're paid less; we're going to give you a discount. No. We get charged the same and often more for what we do, but we're paid less."
The bill aims to close the pay gap between men and women by requiring employers to show that any pay disparities are based on work-related factors such as education, training and experience. It also would update current fair pay laws by barring employers from punishing workers who share information about their pay.
Democrats say the law builds on a 2009 law signed by Obama that made it easier for women to sue for pay discrimination.
That measure is known as the "Lilly Ledbetter Law" after a Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. worker who had lost her claim of pay discrimination before the U.S. Supreme Court because she waited too long to sue. Ledbetter was in the Senate on Tuesday as this latest pay equity measure faltered.
Republican critics said the legislation, which would allow women to pursue punitive damages in wage discrimination cases, would encourage too many frivolous court cases.
"Unfortunately, the only winners under this legislation would be trial lawyers, giving them a windfall," said Republican Senator Dean Heller. "This legislation opens the door to frivolous lawsuits which already cost our economy billions of dollars every year."
(Editing by M.D. Golan)