SCOTT SIMON, host:
On Capitol Hill, the focus has been on the new president, his nominees and the economic stimulus package. You may not have noticed a key bill that could be the first to land on President Obama's desk. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act aims to make it easier for workers to file pay discrimination suits. The Senate passed it this week. It's expected to glide through the house. NPR's Audie Cornish has more.
AUDIE CORNISH: Fighting wage discrimination was one of President Barack Obama's campaign pledges.
(Soundbite of speech)
President BARACK OBAMA: I believe that if you work hard, you'll do a good job, you should be rewarded no matter what you look like, where you come from or what gender you are.
(Soundbite of applause)
CORNISH: So, it's no surprise that congressional Democrats are bringing back labor bills that's stalled under the Bush administration. One of those is the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act named for an Alabama woman who spent the last year speaking about her brush with the gender discrimination law.
Ms. LILLY LEDBETTER: It has been a long time. It's been a long fight. It's been a long hard fight, but it was worth it. And I knew we would eventually win.
CORNISH: Back in 1998, Ledbetter was a supervisor on the verge of retirement when she learned that she earned much less than her male co-workers at a Goodyear Tire plant. When her case reach the Supreme Court a decade later, the justice has ruled she'd waited too long to sue. The pay discrimination bill that passed the Senate this week would reverse that ruling.
Ms. LEDBETTER: I think the message that it has sent to the Supreme Court is they got it wrong, and they did. They changed the law when they made that ruling.
CORNISH: Civil rights law says workers have 180 days to file pay discrimination claims. The justices ruled that the clock starts when the active discrimination first happens. That's unrealistic according to Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri.
Senator CLAIRE MCCASKILL (Democrat, Missouri): They're being discriminated against.
CORNISH: Congress crafted the Ledbetter Bill to amend civil rights laws so that the 180-day clock would reset each time the worker gets an unfair pay check. That means more time for workers to sue and more opposition from Republicans.
Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): This so-called Ledbetter Bill is really a trial lawyer's bailout.
CORNISH: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
Senator MCCONNELL: This bill is about effectively eliminating the statute of limitations on pay discrimination. It unfairly targets business owners who in many cases will no longer have the evidence they would need to mount a just defense. As we all know, job creators have enough to worry about these days. We shouldn't have the threat of never ending lawsuits.
Senator BARBARA MIKULSKI (Democrat, Maryland): Pay people equal pay. That's the way you avoid a lawsuit.
CORNISH: Maryland Senator and bill sponsor, Barbara Mikulski.
Senator MIKULSKI: Give equal pay for equal or comparable work. If you don't want to end up in court and EOC, you don't want to end up with a tattered and torn reputation, pay people equal pay.
CORNISH: In the end, the Ledbetter Bill passed the Senate 61 to 36. It's expected to pass the House easily and land on President Obama's desk next week. It's one of several labor-related measures on the way. The most contentious is likely to be the so-called Employee Free Choice Act. That measure would allow workers to establish unions without a secret ballot. Both businesses and labor have promised it will be a fight. Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.
SIMON: You're listening to Weekend Edition from NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.