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THE NATION

House Opposes Bush Overtime Proposal

Lawmakers abandon their backing of a regulation that would deny extra pay for many workers. Democrats cheer the rare victory.

October 03, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a reversal spurred by economic and political fears, the House on Thursday abandoned its support of a proposed Bush administration regulation that critics said would deny overtime pay to millions of workers.

By a vote of 221 to 203, the House instructed its members who are working with their Senate counterparts on a must-pass spending bill to block most of the administration's overtime proposal. The legislation would fund programs for the departments of Education, Labor and Health and Human Services. Twenty-one Republicans in the House defied a veto threat and joined 199 Democrats and one independent to approve the instructions.

The vote signaled the potency of an issue that is drawing notice in the 2004 presidential campaign and has become a rallying cry for President Bush's critics in organized labor.

The Labor Department is seeking to revise overtime regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act, a Depression-era law that safeguards the right of many workers to earn pay at the rate of time and a half for working more than 40 hours in a week.

House Democrats, who rarely win in the Republican-controlled House, broke into cheers and exchanged high-fives after the vote Thursday. Some said the outcome reflected a White House unable to enforce party discipline amid controversies about Iraq expenses and intelligence leaks.

"We're really excited about it because it really means a lot to the people who get overtime pay," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), who held an impromptu news conference to underscore the victory. "What a good thing."

The California delegation broke strictly along party lines, with Democrats voting against the administration proposal and Republicans in favor of it. Reps. Calvin Dooley (D-Hanford), David Dreier (R-San Dimas), Anna G. Eshoo (D-Atherton) and Darrell E. Issa (R-Vista) did not vote.

Among the 21 GOP defectors were eight who had voted just two months ago to support the administration position. That vote, on July 10, went 213 to 210 in favor of the proposal. Thursday's vote, though, came in a different economic and political climate. Three weeks ago, the Republican-led Senate approved an amendment to the same spending bill that would bar most of the proposed regulations. That forced the issue into House-Senate negotiations.

Some of the Republicans who switched position Thursday were from West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Michigan -- all significant battlegrounds in presidential politics.

"In the intervening months, I have become concerned that some workers could lose overtime protection," said Rep. Candice S. Miller (R-Mich.), who switched her position, "and making sure these people are protected outweighs the benefits from the other changes."

Rep. Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), another who voted differently Thursday, said he changed his mind after consulting with white-collar aerospace workers in his district who feared losing earning power. "I'm just looking at the future and what it's going to take for these people to have an ability to earn overtime wages," he said.

While Thursday's House action was nonbinding, Democrats said it sent the White House a strong message about the mood of the country in uncertain economic times.

"These regulations, I think, in all likelihood will not now go forward in their current form," said Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), a leader in the effort to block the proposal.

But Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said that the proposed revisions were "long overdue" and that "the regulatory process should move forward to benefit workers." The department expects to issue final regulations early next year, and administration officials have said the president would veto any legislation that would block them.

One part of the proposal that has not been controversial ensures that workers who earn less than $22,100 per year are guaranteed overtime pay. The administration said this revision, raising a salary threshold that has long been fixed at $8,060 a year, would help 1.3 million workers who currently are ineligible for the extra compensation.

Critics dispute the claim but nonetheless favor that proposed change. It would be left untouched under the Senate and new House actions.

Other parts of the administration proposal are controversial and would be suspended if critics get their way. They include a revision to make it harder for some workers who are paid more than $65,000 a year to earn overtime. Other revisions would overhaul overtime-qualification criteria for workers who earn between $22,100 and $65,000 annually.

The administration said the new criteria would simplify outdated rules and prevent litigation over who should get overtime and who should not, though it acknowledged that about 640,000 white-collar nonunion workers would lose overtime rights.

Critics said the new criteria would allow employers to classify too many employees as executives, managers or professionals exempt from overtime protection. They said up to 8 million workers could lose pay as a result.

The overtime proposal has become a rallying point for Democrats in the 2004 presidential campaign, who are united against it. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, a candidate for the party's nomination, made a rare appearance on the House floor Thursday to vote against the administration's proposal. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, another presidential candidate, also voted against the overtime proposal. "This administration now seems intent on picking the pockets of workers," Kucinich charged.

Allies of the administration said Democrats were just taking political potshots.

"They want this body [the House], and they want the other body [the Senate], and they want the White House," said Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-San Diego). "They're likely to say just about anything

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