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Defying Bush, House Votes to Block New Overtime Rules

September 10, 2004|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Thursday defied a White House veto threat by voting to block new regulations that critics say deny overtime pay to millions of workers.

The 223-193 vote was a rare victory for Democrats in the Republican-controlled chamber and underscores how election-year politics are shaping legislation in the final weeks of the congressional session.

The Bush administration contends that the new regulations, which took effect Aug. 23, give more workers overtime pay. But 22 Republicans -- mostly from Northern and Midwestern states -- joined 200 Democrats and one independent in supporting the amendment, which blocks the regulations that affect higher-paid workers but protects those for the lowest-paid workers.

The amendment was attached to a $142-billion spending bill for health, education and jobs programs. That bill was approved later on Thursday, 338-13, and now goes to the Senate.

"My friends in the labor movement in Connecticut asked me to vote against the finalized overtime regulations, and I did," said Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Conn.), one of those who broke ranks with his party and supported the amendment.

"It is my hope that regulations can be crafted that make more working families eligible for overtime while not placing other workers at risk."

While the overtime rules did not require congressional action to take effect, there have been several efforts in Congress to affect their implementation.

John Feehery, a spokesman for House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), predicted that the overtime amendment was "probably not going to survive conference" -- a reference to House-Senate negotiations on a final bill. He said the House vote on the amendment was not that surprising "given how close the election is."

The California delegation voted along party lines on the amendment, with all Republicans opposing it and all Democrats supporting it, with the exception of Rep. Maxine Waters of Los Angeles, who was absent.

The vote marked the Bush administration's third defeat in Congress in the last two days.

On Wednesday, five Senate Republicans broke ranks and joined Democrats in voting for a measure that would prevent the administration from turning over some federal immigration jobs to private workers.

And on Thursday, a Senate committee voted to block the administration's efforts to restrict travel to Cuba.

Democrats have sought to highlight the overtime regulations in efforts to portray Bush and congressional Republicans as insensitive to the needs of American workers in tough economic times. After the House action, Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry issued a statement hailing the vote.

Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), the top Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, called the new rules "the most sweeping, antiemployee changes since the Fair Labor Standards Act was passed in 1938." Miller decried them as "the largest single pay cut for hard-working Americans in the nation's history."

Republicans have accused Democrats of misrepresenting the facts about the rules.

Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the workforce committee, accused Democratic Party leaders and "Washington labor bosses" of waging a "politically inspired" campaign to take away overtime rights from 1.3 million low-wage workers.

According to the administration, the rules will strengthen overtime protections for many more workers than will lose them.

It argues that while more than 107,000 workers earning in excess of $100,000 a year could lose overtime pay under the new rules, an estimated 1.3 million workers earning less than $23,600 annually will gain new rights to overtime pay.

Critics contend that the new regulations will actually take away overtime pay from at least 6 million workers.

Miller noted that the amendment adopted Thursday preserved the "one noncontroversial provision of the new Bush policy, which guarantees overtime pay to any worker earning less than a base salary of $23,660."

However, Alfred B. Robinson Jr., the Labor Department's acting administrator for the wage and hour division, said the House vote "puts the overtime rights of millions of workers in jeopardy by preventing the Department of Labor from enforcing the new rules."

He said that under the measure, workers who make more than $23,660 a year will be "left to fend for themselves, having to hire expensive trial lawyers to defend their overtime pay.... Whether intentionally or not, Congress has turned back the clock nearly 70 years on a fundamental worker protection."

By contrast, AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said in a statement that the House vote "sends a strong message to the White House: America's workers, leaders and communities do not support his overtime pay cut, and President Bush should back off his threats to veto this important protection for workers' overtime pay."

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