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House GOP Retreats on Comp-Time Bill

Democrats and unions foil legislation backed by Bush and businesses that would let employers offer workers time off instead of overtime pay.

June 06, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Democrats and organized labor Thursday savored a rare partisan win in the Republican-led House after thwarting a GOP bill that would have allowed employers to offer hourly workers compensatory time off instead of overtime pay.

In the face of loud and forceful opposition from labor unions, House Republican leaders abruptly pulled the "comp-time" bill Wednesday from their schedule, as head counts showed it heading toward defeat.

Under the Republican bill, businesses would be allowed to give workers a choice between overtime pay or compensatory time off, both calculated at a time-and-a-half rate. Employers would be able to bar workers from taking days off that would, in their judgment, unduly disrupt business.

Backed by business lobbies and the Bush administration, the bill would amend a Depression-era labor law that protects the 40-hour workweek for millions of hourly, private-sector employees. The law ensures that such workers receive time-and-a-half pay for overtime, accrued in the week it is worked.

Advocates said the blocked bill would have given employees flexibility to spend more time with their families. Critics said it would have put heavy pressure on low-income workers to forgo overtime pay to please employers trying to cut expenses. Such coercion was specifically barred in the legislation.

The confrontation inflamed already sharp tensions between union leaders and the administration. The Labor Department and other federal agencies have sought to deregulate industries in ways that union leaders view as an attack on worker rights. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who endorsed the comp-time bill, has had trouble recently even getting some labor leaders to meet with her.

Against that backdrop, House Republican leaders announced last week that the comp-time bill would come to a vote by Wednesday or Thursday. This week, they reiterated their determination to bring the matter to a head.

That made Wednesday's GOP retreat more notable. Typically, Republican leaders don't allow a contested bill onto the floor of the closely divided House unless they know they will win. But GOP leaders acknowledged falling short this time.

Advocates of the bill were unable to round up enough pro-business Democrats to counter opposition from a sizable pro-labor bloc among the 228 House Republicans, said a spokeswoman for House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).

"We never pass labor bills without Democrat votes," said spokeswoman Burson Taylor. "And we weren't going to have them this time for whatever reason. The bill got postponed. We'll try to bring it up again."

Whether more time will change the outcome is unclear. One business lobbyist said the bill looks dead for the year.

Bill Samuel, legislative director for the AFL-CIO, said his union rank and file have been mobilizing for months to protest changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 -- and will continue to do so if the measure comes up again.

"There aren't many votes on 65-year-old labor laws," Samuel said. "This is pretty rare. The response we got from our members was unbelievable."

Twice in recent years, the Republican-led House has approved similar comp-time legislation. In 1996 and 1997, versions passed with backing from more than a dozen crossover Democrats. Those efforts died in the Senate and faced veto threats from President Clinton.

This time, sources said, only a handful of the 205 House Democrats were for the bill, a faction led by Rep. Charles W. Stenholm of Texas. Another breakaway Democrat was Rep. Calvin M. Dooley of Hanford, said Diego Arambula, a Dooley spokesman. The centrist Dooley has also backed the Bush administration on major trade bills, over labor objections.

Republican sponsors lashed out at their foes.

"Bill opponents have spread a lot of misinformation, but there is no doubt that comp-time's time has come," said Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.). The bill would benefit workers, she maintained, particularly women who bear the brunt when it comes to juggling work and family responsibilities.

"Workers of America -- especially women -- may have to wait just a little bit longer to enjoy comp-time freedom, but we will deliver it," Biggert said.

Democrats said they would be ready for a rematch.

"We have every expectation that the Republican leadership will bring this bill back," said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.). "We have no intention of assuming that this victory means the larger battle had ended."

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