"This is about Republicans seemingly opposing any efforts to even the playing field for working families," Obama said at a White House signing ceremony, surrounded by women advocates and accompanied by Lilly Ledbetter, a woman whose namesake legislation on pay equity was the first bill Obama signed into law in 2009.
Obama's executive order and directive to the Labor Department dovetailed with the start of Senate debate on broader legislation that would make it easier for workers to sue companies for paying women less because of their gender. That legislation is expected to fail, as it has in the past, due to Republican opposition.
White the president's actions affect only federal contractors, those directives can have a wide and direct impact. Federal contracting covers nearly one-quarter of the U.S. workforce and includes companies ranging from Boeing to small parts suppliers and service providers. Such actions also can be largely symbolic, designed to spur action in the broader economy.
The Senate legislation, like Obama's narrower executive order, would forbid companies from punishing workers who share salary information and would allow punitive and compensatory damages in lawsuits. It also would make it harder for companies to prove that disparities in pay are not gender based and would make it easier to file class action lawsuits.
Some Republican women were considering proposing a narrower bill as an alternative.
The National Labor Relations Board and some federal courts already have determined that company pay secrecy rules are prohibited under the National Labor Relations Act. But cases against violators can only be brought by the NLRB on the basis of a complaint. The Senate bill would spell out the prohibition and allow private lawsuits, which could be more financially penalizing than NLRB actions.
"Pay secrecy fosters discrimination, and we should not tolerate it, not in federal contracting or anywhere else," Obama said.
Obama's executive actions are part of his drive to act on his own when Congress stalls on his policy initiatives. The executive order and the presidential memorandum to the Labor Department are his latest directives on wages, pay disparities and hiring targeting the federal government's vast array of contractors and subcontractors.
That coordinated effort to appeal to women comes amid varying measures of what the wage gap may actually be.
Obama cited Census Bureau figures show that the annual earnings of women were 77 percent of what men earned in 2012, a difference that has barely budged over the past decade.
But when measured by hourly earnings, that difference is a narrower 86 percent, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The larger gap is in part because women tend to work fewer hours than men and because the annual figures includes items omitted from the hourly data, including tips and bonuses. An analysis of 2012 data by the Pew Research Center placed the discrepancy at 84 cents for women for every $1 made by men.
Underscoring the politics behind the efforts, Democrats were aggressively soliciting campaign contributions, accusing Republicans of standing in the way of pay equity. Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Chris Coons of Delaware, for instance, sent out emails Tuesday drawing attention to the pay gap and directing supporters to a contribution site that was compiling donations for House and Senate Democrats.
Republicans argued that the Senate legislation would hurt women by restricting job flexibility and merit pay.
"The fact is many women seek jobs that provide more flexibility for their families over more money, which is the choice that I made as a young working mom. It is my choice, and I don't understand why Democrats won't respect my choices," Rep. Lynn Jenkins, R-Kan., said.
At a news conference, five male Democratic senators said the issue of equalizing pay for men and women was more than a women's issue.
"Rebuilding the middle class begins with good-paying jobs. And those good-paying jobs won't happen if women are systematically denied fair pay simply based on their gender," said Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the Senate's No. 3 Democratic leader, said equalizing pay for men and women was a popular issue and warned Republicans opposing the measure, "We're going to come back to this issue several times this year."