"For millions of American women, no amount of talent or dedication will bring pay equality with male coworkers," Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said on the Senate floor. "In the minds of many employers, they simply aren't equal."
Republicans called the Senate proposal a political ploy that would benefit trial lawyers while doing little, if anything, to advance equal pay.
"This is just a political exercise," Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R., Utah) said. "It's offensive. Over and over, that's all we're doing this year, things that might protect Democrats."
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D., Md.), would increase potential damages to plaintiffs in pay-discrimination suits and increase the legal burden on employers to show that pay disparities aren't gender-based. It would create a grant program to train women on how to negotiate with employers on their pay.
A similar measure failed to advance in the Senate in 2010.
President Obama, in a statement after the vote, said it was "incredibly disappointing that in this make-or-break moment for the middle class, Senate Republicans put partisan politics ahead of American women and their families."
Congressional Democrats this week called on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to endorse the measure and noted that the first bill Obama signed into law in 2009 extended the deadline for filing pay-discrimination lawsuits.
In an April interview with ABC's Diane Sawyer, Romney said he supported equal pay for women, though he declined to say whether he would have signed the 2009 law.
A campaign spokeswoman declined Tuesday to provide Romney's position on the Senate bill. "Governor Romney supports pay equity for women," Amanda Henneberg said in an e-mailed statement.