WASHINGTON — The House voted Friday to give women powerful new tools to challenge sex discrimination by employers who pay women less than men for the same or substantially similar work.
The action shows how Congress, working with President-elect Obama, intends to make a swift, sharp break with civil rights policies of the Bush administration.
"In the first week of the new Congress, this is the legislation we are putting forward — pay equity, fairness to women in the workplace," said Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. "These are our priorities."
The House passed two related bills Friday. One, approved by a vote of 247-171, would give workers more time to file lawsuits claiming job discrimination.
The bill would overturn a 2007 decision by the Supreme Court that enforced a strict 180-day deadline, thwarting a lawsuit by Lilly Ledbetter, a longtime supervisor at the Goodyear tire plant in Gadsden, Ala. Three Republicans voted for this bill.
The other bill — passed 256-163, with support from 10 Republicans — would make it easier for women to prove violations of the Equal Pay Act of 1963, which generally requires equal pay for equal work.
President Bush threatened to veto both bills, saying they would "invite a surge of litigation" and "impose a tremendous burden on employers." Congress will not give him the opportunity.
Obama is eager to sign the bills, and it appears he will be able to do so. Supporters of the legislation said they believed they could come up with the 60 votes needed to ensure passage in the Senate, after two vacant seats are filled.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers opposed the bills. Jeri Kubicki, a vice president of the manufacturers group, said the bills would "open the floodgates to unwarranted litigation against employers at a time when businesses are struggling to retain and create jobs."
In the Ledbetter case, a jury found Goodyear had paid her less than men, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, threw out her complaint. It said she should have filed her claim within 180 days of "the alleged unlawful employment practice" — the initial decision to pay her less than men performing similar work.
"The Ledbetter decision is unacceptable and must not stand," said Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who is chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor. Under the decision, he said, employers can get away with years of pay discrimination "if they hide it for the first 180 days."
The bill would relax the statute of limitations, making clear that each new paycheck violates the law if it results from a discriminatory decision made in the past.