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Senate Opposes White House Rewrite of Overtime Rules

Six Republicans join Democrats against a plan to reduce those eligible for extra pay.

September 11, 2003|Nick Anderson | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A sharply divided Senate voted Wednesday to preserve overtime pay for a broad swath of U.S. workers, opposing a Bush administration plan to exempt them from federal standards that protect many people who work more than 40 hours a week.

The vote was a rare victory for labor in a GOP-led Congress that usually sides with business.

The 54-45 vote left the fate of the controversial draft regulations uncertain. Six Republican senators broke from the administration position, joining with Democrats to send President Bush a message about the potency of pocketbook issues in unsettled economic times.

The action put the Senate at odds with the House, which narrowly backed the administration's proposal in July. Lawmakers will be hard-pressed to bridge the disagreement; if they don't, the administration will be able to put the rules into effect.

White House aides have issued a veto threat against any bill that would torpedo the proposed overtime rules. The Senate measure to do just that was attached Wednesday to a large spending bill. If the bill clears Congress with the measure intact, then a veto would jeopardize billions of dollars in funding for labor, health and education programs.

Such a veto, moreover, could prove politically perilous for a president seeking reelection.

Indeed, the Senate vote gave critics an opening to depict Bush as insensitive to workers -- including, they said, firefighters, police officers and nurses -- who count on overtime pay to make ends meet.

"Why in the world would the administration want to cut the pay for these indispensable first responders?" said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Democrats charged that if the administration plan takes effect, up to 8 million workers in dozens of professions would lose their right to time-and-a-half compensation for working more than 40 hours in a week.

Republican supporters of the proposal denied that any emergency personnel would be affected and contended that the workers losing overtime would number between 600,000 and 700,000 and be concentrated in white-collar professions. They also said the proposed regulations would grant 1.3 million low-wage workers earning less than $21,000 annually new overtime rights. The administration estimated that those workers would be eligible for $895 million a year in additional wages.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) called the Democratic assessment of the proposal "completely bogus," though not all his party members agreed.

Republicans who teamed with Democrats to oppose it were Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski, both of Alaska. Specter, Campbell and Murkowski are up for election in 2004.

Snowe said, "These changes would pose a significant hardship for working families, particularly during these insecure economic times."

Just one Democrat sided with the administration, Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia. Democratic Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, John Edwards of North Carolina, Bob Graham of Florida and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut -- presidential candidates who have missed frequent votes while campaigning -- made a point of being present to record their opposition to the proposal. All saw an opportunity to attack Bush's economic record.

"This is another example of how the president's priorities are out of whack," Edwards said. "It makes no sense to cut the paychecks of Americans who work long hours to support their families while handing out tax breaks to wealthy investors."

The administration pledged to forge ahead.

"The Department of Labor will continue our efforts to strengthen overtime protections for workers," Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao said. "The department's proposed reforms are long overdue."

The department unveiled the proposal in March and has received about 80,000 comments on it. A final version is expected to be announced within months.

Republicans defended the proposed rules as an attempt to update a confusing job-classification system that has been unchanged for decades. They said the current setup only breeds lawsuits from workers who claim that companies are denying them compensation.

Organized labor lobbied heavily against the proposal, even though the Labor Department said union workers would be unaffected. Labor leaders said any reductions in overtime protections would undercut the bargaining position of all workers against companies eager to cut payroll expenses.

Business interests have argued that the proposed rules would help the economy.

"The 50-year-old overtime regulations that are currently on the books are vague, confusing and totally outdated," said Tracy Mullin, president of the National Retail Federation. "It is extremely difficult for an employer to determine whether a worker should receive overtime, and the result has been an explosion of litigation from disputed decisions."

Wednesday's vote came during debate on a $138-billion bill funding education, labor and health programs for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. The Senate approved passage of the bill Wednesday evening.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) proposed the amendment to block implementation of any rule that would reduce overtime pay. His wording would leave intact the administration proposal to raise overtime pay for low-income workers.

The overtime issue now heads into House-Senate negotiations. Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said the House, which backed the administration plan, 213 to 210 remains committed to it. He cautioned, though, that the final regulations "are going to look different."

Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) said the mood of the House had shifted in recent weeks. "There's growing uneasiness among Republicans as they discover who's truly impacted by these rules," he said.

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