WASHINGTON - Democrats and union leaders are lambasting President Bush for a proposal they say would cost at least 8 million workers their overtime pay after the House backed his drive to overhaul decades-old rules determining who qualifies for the extra money.
The Republican-led chamber voted 213-210 on Thursday to defeat a Democratic effort to derail the proposed regulations, clearing the way for the administration to impose changes in overtime rules as early as the end of this year.
Though further attempts by Senate Democrats to block the rules are possible - and though the administration can still alter its proposal - new regulations will take effect unless a law is enacted preventing it, giving Bush, the GOP and their business supporters the upper hand.
The new rules, proposed in March, would require overtime for workers earning up to $22,100 a year, up from the current ceiling of $8,060 set in 1975. The Labor Department said that change would benefit as many as 1.3 million low-income workers who now do not receive overtime rates when they work more than 40 hours a week. Democrats didn't oppose that part of the administration's proposal.
Numerous other changes also would be made in the complex regulations, including definitions of which administrative, professional and executive jobs qualify for overtime.
The Labor Department estimated that those changes could eliminate overtime for at least 644,000 white-collar workers now getting it. Democrats and union leaders say the number who could lose overtime is closer to 8 million. None of the changes would nullify overtime arrangements negotiated in union contracts.
"The House of Representatives today sent a clear message that the nation's overtime rules need to be updated to protect millions of low-wage workers," Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, chief author of the regulations, said in a written statement after the vote.
The narrow vote was preceded by all-out lobbying by unions and business groups, and a threat by the White House to veto a popular spending bill to which Democrats tried attaching their provision. The underlying measure would provide $138 billion for next year's health, labor and education programs, and was approved by 215-208.
The new regulations could take effect as early as the end of this year. Yet with Democrats hoping to use the flat economy and rising unemployment figures as ammunition in next year's presidential and congressional elections, they and their allies continued to talk tough.
"We call on the administration to stop its assault on working families," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in a written statement. "Congress will have a chance to revisit this issue and we urge workers to tell members to protect their overtime rights."
Three Democrats joined 210 Republicans in opposing the provision. Voting for it were 195 Democrats, 14 Republicans and one independent.
Republicans said the new Labor Department rules would clarify confusing regulations and reduce the growing number of lawsuits by workers seeking overtime. Democrats said the changes were designed to help employers take overtime away.
Both sides sent lobbyists to the Capitol and barraged lawmakers with phone calls, e-mails and letters. Both sides promised to include the vote among those they tally at election time to rate whether legislators are sympathetic to their causes. Among the groups working the issue were the AFL-CIO, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Restaurant Association and the International Union of Police Associations.
The overall bill the House considered would provide a 2.7 percent increase over this year's total in the largest of the 11 domestic spending measures Congress considers every year. It was approved 215-208, with some lawmakers voting in baseball uniforms for the annual game between House Democrats and Republicans.
The bill would provide modest increases over last year for low-income school districts, AIDS treatment, Head Start, job training and biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health. Democrats said the boosts were inadequate and fell below amounts promised in earlier high-profile bills.
By 222-199, the House rejected a Democratic effort to roll back a portion of recent tax reductions for millionaires and use the money to increase spending.
"Hiking taxes to pay for big government programs is as dead as disco," House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, said.
Copyright 2003 The Associated Press