Senate Stalls "Don't Ask" AND DREAM Act. Will the Paycheck Fairness Act Pass?

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Of the many bills up for a vote in the Senate, today's votes on two high-profile pieces of legislation succumbed to a Republican filibuster by narrow margins -- and a third bill of utmost importance to women in the workforce could face a vote in the next week.

Activists in support of the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors (DREAM) Act and the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell -- both of which were appended to the Defense Authorization Act that funds the current war in Afghanistan -- said the filibuster was a temporary setback and that they would press for the bills to be revisited in the Senate after the midterm elections.

WASHINGTON - SEPTEMBER 21: U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) (L) and U.S. Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI) (R) participate in a news conference after Senate Democrats failed to invoke cloture on the defense authorization bill September 21, 2010 in Washington, DC. The Senate fell short of the 60 votes needed to begin debate on a bill that includes the policy on gays in the military. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The bills needed 60 votes to suspend a filibuster by Republicans. Only 56 votes were cast to break the filibuster, and Democratic Senators from Arkansas Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor voted with all 41 of the GOP members of the Senate. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) voted no simply as a procedural matter so he could bring the bills up for reconsideration at a later date, likely before the end of the year.

The DREAM Act would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented youth who come to America as young children, requiring a lengthy period of U.S. residency plus two years successful completion of college or time served in the military. It started off promisingly in 2007 as a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Senator Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL).

Today, Hatch said he voted against the entire Defense Authorization bill because DADT was also attached. The DREAM Act was supported by the Obama White House in a July, 2010 speech and by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who told reporters in a press conference earlier this morning that passage of the bill "...will stop punishing innocent young people for the accidental circumstances of their birth." Estimates are that up to 2.1 million children and adults to 35 years old could've been eligible for conditional green cards as a first step to citizenship had the DREAM Act passed.

DADT's repeal would end the current practice of expelling lesbian and gay servicemembers from the military if they are openly gay; the law's repeal would affect approximately 48,000 active duty and reserve personnel. Lt. Dan Choi, a figurehead of the repeal movement, himself gay and an Iraq war veteran, had been discharged earlier this year for his public proclamation of his sexual orientation. Those who back DADT's repeal argue that it's discriminatory and undermines national security because of the talent it excludes from military service. It appeared that Republican anti-gay attitudes were softening, with Log Cabin Republicans helping to press the issue in the federal courts. (Earlier in September, a California federal court ruled DADT unconstitutional.) Among the right-wing, even a Wall Street Journal columnist made a particular case for conservatives to repeal DADT but the issue continues to split religious conservatives who object from fiscal conservatives whose views may be more socially moderate.

The third piece of legislation builds upon the Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, which President Obama signed almost immediately upon taking office. Ledbetter was the legislative fix for an egregious Supreme Court ruling which denied a woman subjected to discriminatory pay practices the right to sue her employer for damages because the statute of limitations was artificially short. (Now women who experience gender discrimination in pay have 180 days from the discovery of unfair pay practices, instead of 180 days from when the unfair pay began.) The Paycheck Fairness Act goes a step further: it closes loopholes in the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and protects women who experience wage discrimination form retaliation by employers, gives women and their employers additional tools to establish equal pay for equal work, and ensures small businesses also comply.

As a result of the law's passage, business owners who cheat their female employees would no longer have a bottom-line advantage against businesses that are run fairly. In a time when women are both faced with a weak economy and are important wage earners for their households, being paid $.77 to a man's dollar for the same work is unacceptable. Major newspapers such as the NYT, and advisors to the White House, like Valerie Jarrett, have urged that this law be passed as soon as possible.

The House version of the bill passed in 2009. Senate passage -- and votes by key Republican women senators -- could enable the Paycheck Fairness Act to make it to the President's desk before the end of the 2010 legislative session.

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