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February 11, 2016

Fischer Takes GOP Lead in Pay Equity Debate

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., arrives in the Capitol for the weekly policy luncheons on Tuesday. Fischer co-authored the GOP's alternative pay equity bill. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Fischer co-authored the GOP’s alternative pay equity bill. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., likes to tell a story about when she was first elected to the state legislature and a reporter asked if she would focus on women’s issues.

“And I said, ‘Tell me what a women’s issue is,'” Fischer said.

After serving in Nebraska’s unicameral Legislature for eight years, she takes the same approach in the Senate, to which she was elected in 2012.

In a hallway interview Wednesday, she argued that women’s issues are no different from anyone else’s and include creating a strong economy, jobs, building infrastructure and ensuring national security.

“Women want the same thing that men want, so I don’t like being slotted in what’s perceived as a women’s issue because I think women’s issues are the same important issues that everybody in this country is trying to address,” she said.

Her comments come after she helped lead Republican opposition to the Democratic pay equity bill sponsored by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md.

The vote failed, 53-44, with all Democrats voting in favor of advancing the bill with the exception of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who voted “no” on procedural grounds. Sen. Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats, voted with Republicans to filibuster the measure. Three Republicans did not vote.

Fischer helped lead the filibuster after Democrats refused to grant her a vote on her alternative, which had the blessing of Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

“I spoke with Sen. McConnell and told him what my office was working on; I reached out to him,” Fischer said. “Sometimes something pops up that you think you can offer a solution to that’s been overlooked and I think that’s what we did here.”

The other Republican women signed on to Fischer’s bill as well — Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Murkowski, who has long worked on the pay equity issue, said Fischer worked to get input from members.

“She was [also] trying very hard to help educate some folks in our conference in terms of the messaging,” Murkowski said. “To suggest that pay inequities don’t exist is not what we should be saying because they do. Let’s be honest about it and try to come up with some proposals that are rational, instead of saying, ‘No problem here.’ ”

On the Senate floor Tuesday, Fischer argued that the GOP alternative should get a vote, but Democrats objected to her request, as they did to similar overtures for votes on other Republican amendments.

Also raising the profile of the junior senator from Nebraska was her appearance with McConnell at his weekly question-and-answer session with the press.

The GOP bill would have addressed concerns Republicans had with the Democratic measure, which they charged would lead to negative effects on merit pay, rigid pay scales and costly litigation — while still prohibiting retaliation against workers for inquiring about salaries of their co-workers or disclosing them.

Democrats have sought to frame the debate as Republicans being out of touch with women and plan to revisit the bill ahead of the the November elections.

“The fight is not over,” Reid said at a press conference. “This is not going to be the last opportunity for them to vote for this or to vote against it.”

But Fischer dismissed that narrative and argued Republicans have a strong case to make.

“Yes, we acknowledge there is some discrimination out there, it still happens,” Fischer said. “We have laws that address it. Enforce the laws that address it. And then we need to create jobs, we need to make sure that people have opportunity.”

Fischer lamented that the Senate did not consider the Republican amendments, which she said hurts the minority’s ability to represent their constituents.

“I was sent here to do a job and we aren’t allowed to do our job, which is to represent not just the people of our state, but the people of this country,” Fischer said. “We should be debating. And standing up there and talking is not debating. A debate concludes by a vote and we aren’t allowed to do that here, so that’s very, very disappointing.”

Reid said he remains open to Republican amendments that are germane and constructive, but said Republicans have to agree to start the debate first.

The vote also came after a dinner Tuesday evening, held every few months by the women of the Senate.

Asked if it was awkward given that the issue resonates with them all and that they are opposed on ways of addressing the matter, Fischer said, “Not at all.”

“We have different views, we come from places, and we hold different principles,” Fischer said, adding the pay equity issue didn’t come up.

She noted the practice is not to talk politics.

“I don’t do that,” Fischer said. “Sometimes things are said and then people realize that they shouldn’t have said it. But … I think I can get along and work with any of my colleagues here.”

Mikulski agreed.

“Many of us agree on the same goals, but we disagree on methods,” she said.

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