The bill would allow plaintiffs to collect compensatory and punitive damages for violations of the law.
Democratic senators Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, and Tom Harkin of Iowa issued the call on the 38th anniversary of the original law, which makes it illegal for employers to pay unequal wages to men and women who hold the same job and do the same work.
They also spoke a day after the U.S. Supreme Court again refused to hear an Illinois equal-pay case.
The new legislation, dubbed the Paycheck Fairness Act, was introduced in the Senate earlier this year by Thomas A. Daschle, D-South Dakota. U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has offered a companion bill in the house.
Kennedy, who became chairman of the Senate's Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee with the chamber's shift to Democratic control this month, pledged to "ensure that we address equal pay in this Congress."
Judith C. Appelbaum, vice president and director of employment opportunities for the National Women's Law Center, said that nearly four decades after President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act into law, American women "are still finding their paychecks shortchanged because of their sex."
"Women still earn, on average, only 72 cents for every dollar earned by men," she said. "Women of color fare significantly worse. An African-American woman earns just 65 cents to every dollar earned by a white man, while a Hispanic woman earns only 52 cents on the dollar."
With more than 70 percent of American women with children now in the workforce and a growing number of single women providing most or all of their families' support, strengthening the law has become more important than ever, Appelbaum said.
"These families cannot afford a paycheck that is shortchanged just because the worker who earned it is a woman," she said.
The case the Supreme Court refused to hear on Monday pitted an equal-pay complaint against states' rights.
Illinois State University professors Iris Varner, Teresa Palmer, and Paula Pomerenke sued the university in 1995, alleging that it paid female professors less than their male colleagues.
The university countered that the professors cannot sue in federal court under the Equal Pay Act, claiming protection under the 11th Amendment.
The 11th Amendment has been interpreted to give states immunity from private suits seeking money in federal court, unless the states have consented to be sued or Congress has acted conclusively to do away with the immunity.
The female professors, backed by the Justice Department, argued that Congress was within its rights to override state immunity when it came to enforcing the equal pay law.
Twice, a federal appeals court agreed. But as it did once before, the high court opted Monday not to hear the case.
Last year, the justices threw out a 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision against the university and told the lower court to reconsider the case in light of a Supreme Court decision that said state employees are not protected by a federal law banning age bias.
The appeals court did reconsider - then concluded that the age-bias case did not weaken the women's argument.
The university appealed anew to the Supreme Court, arguing that the appeals court disobeyed an order.
To view an Associated Press story on Illinois State University v. Varner, click here.
To check on the status of S. 77, the Paycheck Fairness Act, visit Thomas.
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ing to capitalize on their new power as members of the Senate's majority party, several key Democratic senators called this week for passage of a bill meant to bolster the Equal Pay Act.