The Senate voted Thursday to reverse a 2007 Supreme Court decision that imposed strict time limits on when workers can sue over alleged pay discrimination.
With the 61-36 vote, Congress is poised to send President Obama its first piece of legislation for his signature. The legislation is a top priority of labor unions and women's rights groups, both of which played a critical role in Democrats' 2008 campaigns. The bill is expected to be approved by the House.
Former President Bush threatened to veto the measure last year, called the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The bill never made it out of the Senate.
Republicans have said the measure is a pay out to trial lawyers and Big Labor. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a former small business owner, said the bill will have a negative effect as small business owners are hit with "frivolous lawsuits."
"This will leave women with less jobs. Small business owners, especially now in these hard economic times, are having a rough time. This kind of expense will mean they have less jobs for everyone, including women," he said.
The bill is named for Lilly Ledbetter, a former employee of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, who sued the company when she discovered after her 19-year career that she was paid much less than her fellow male colleagues. The case eventually made it to the Supreme Court where, in a 5-4 decision, Ledbetter lost her case. The court ruled that employees must file a claim within 180 days of a company's initial decision to pay a worker less money, regardless of when a discrepancy is discovered.
The Senate on Thursday approved legislation, as Ledbetter looked on, that declares each paycheck a worker receives can represent a new violation, thereby renewing the statute of limitations with each pay period.
"Today we changed the law, we changed direction, we changed history," said the bill's lead sponsor, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. Mikulski sent out a special note for the bill's previous lead sponsor, the ailing Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who suffered a seizure related to a brain tumor earlier this week: "Ted, we miss you. We know you're not here on the floor, but you're with us in spirit."