04/15/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/14/2014 05:59 EDT

Why Washington is playing politics with women's paycheques

Republicans and Democrats are engaged in an ongoing fight to prove who cares more about women and the battles are heating up as the months wind down before this fall’s mid-term elections.

Women are a key demographic that Democrats have traditionally done better with than Republicans and their votes are desperately needed in November for Democrats to keep control of the Senate. The Republicans are working hard to swing women their way and to fight back against the Democrats’ campaign agenda that is putting women front and centre.  

The latest battle, over pay equity, had both sides accusing the other of treating women as pawns and playing politics with their paycheques.

There were calls to put politics aside, but then in the same breaths, there were put-downs of the other party. This is par for the course in Washington, but these days the rhetoric about who loves women the most, and who knows best what they want, is rampant.

“Many ladies I know feel like they are being used as pawns and find it condescending that Democrats are trying to use this issue as a political distraction from the failures of their economic policies,” Republican representative Lynn Jenkins told reporters last week on Pay Equity Day.

April 8 symbolizes how far into 2014 women must work to earn the same as men. President Barack Obama seized on the day to announce two executive orders that would apply to federal contractors. They will be required to provide data about salaries broken down by race and sex in order to better identify discrimination and they will not be allowed to retaliate against employees who discuss their salaries with each other.

'Whose side are you on?'

The following day there was a vote in the Senate on the Democrats’ Paycheque Fairness Act whose measures mirror the executive orders and would apply to all businesses. The Republicans didn’t support it, which provided the Democrats with an opportunity to preach their sermon about Republicans waging a “war on women.”

“I don't know why you would resist the idea that women should be paid the same as men,” Obama said. “If Republicans in Congress want to prove me wrong, if they want to show that they, in fact, do care about women being paid the same as men, then show me,” Obama said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid put it another way – either you’re with women or you’re against them.

“This issue boils down to a fundamental question: Whose side are you on? As usual, the Republicans are siding with the rich and not obviously being too concerned about what's happening with women in America, not getting paid as much as men for doing the exact same work,” he said.

Nonsense, the GOP responded, they care very much about equal pay for equal work but wouldn’t vote for the bill because it is redundant — pay discrimination is already illegal — and it wouldn’t truly address the problems facing women. They also think it would lead to an outbreak of lawsuits against employers.

They’re trying to convince Americans not to fall for the Democrats’ tricks. This is all about winning the mid-terms, not really about women’s interests, Republicans say.

“They have written these bills because they know that they won't pass. And they are doing it just to score political points,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz said on Fox News. “This has everything to do with a political show vote for the Democrats and paying off the trial lawyers, who are among the biggest funders of the Democratic Party. And they are using women to hide what they are really trying to do.”

The Obamacare-hating Republicans say the president’s signature health-care law and other policies are hurting women and that their party has introduced plenty of bills that would truly address inequality between the sexes.

Republicans fighting back

Republicans are used to the Democrats attacking them as “hostile” to women and using the “war-on-women” line in their arsenal. In the last election cycle, they did a poor job of responding to those attacks, a failure they have recognized and are concentrating on avoiding this time around.

They’re working on various strategies, including recruiting more women candidates and even tutoring their male candidates on how to talk to and about women without offending them. They are more prepared with talking points at the ready when the Democrats stage events like the pay equity one last week.

The Paycheque Fairness Act failed but Democrats will be able to bring it up for a vote again and there’s no doubt they will so they can yet again accuse the Republicans of not supporting women.

“They’re out of touch. They’re so in their sort of conservative echo chamber that they don’t know what’s going on in America. And that’s going to help us dramatically in 2014,” Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said last week.

Facing a real risk of losing the Senate, Democrats will be counting on that help come voting day.