Senate committee votes to block new overtime rules by president

Posted: Thursday, September 16, 2004

WASHINGTON -- A Senate committee voted Wednesday to scuttle new rules that critics say would deny overtime pay to millions of workers, as Democrats won the latest round in their election-year bout with President Bush over the issue.

The 16-13 vote by the Republican-run Senate Appropriations Committee came less than a week after the GOP-led House embarrassed Bush by approving a similar measure.

Despite the twin rebukes by Congress, the provision could well disappear when House-Senate bargainers write a final version of the spending bill to which it was attached. GOP leaders and the White House will dominate that part of the legislative process.

Win or lose, Democrats hope the overtime fight will galvanize their union supporters to vote in the November election.

''Working families across the country are demanding that Bush put their interests above those of big business,'' AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said after the vote.

The reverse effect might also benefit Republicans, who rely on campaign contributions from companies and corporate executives, many of whom favor the new regulations.

The Bush administration and most Republicans support the rules, which took effect Aug. 23. They said the regulations, the most thorough rewrite of the rules in five decades, are a badly needed update.

''We ought to let it run for a while so we can judge what the effect of this rule is,'' said Appropriations panel Chair Ted Stevens, R-Alaska.

Two Republicans joined the committee's Democrats in voting to derail the overtime rules: Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, seeking re-election this year in a state with a strong labor presence, and Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, who is retiring.

The language was offered by Sen. Tom Harkin, D- Iowa, who said the new rules would remove overtime protection for up to 6 million workers.

''They undermine the 40-hour work week,'' said Harkin of the rules, adding, ''The economic health of too many workers is at stake.''

Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., called the estimate of 6 million workers losing overtime ''totally bogus.''

The overtime provision was added to a $145.9 billion spending bill financing labor, health and education programs. The overall measure was approved by 29-0.

Last Thursday, the House voted 223-193 to add similar language to its version of the same bill, underscoring the sensitivity that Republicans from labor districts have on the issue.

The White House has threatened a veto of the entire spending bill if the overtime language survives. House leaders have said they believe the provision will be removed from the final House-Senate compromise.

Democrats and their labor allies say the new regulations would threaten the overtime payments of chefs, nurses, police officers, journalists, athletic trainers, lower-level computer employees and those who perform small amounts of supervisory work.

That is disputed by the White House and the Labor Department, which argue that the new rules clarify who is entitled to overtime in a work force that has changed dramatically over the decades. They say the rules would reduce confusion that has led to expensive lawsuits.

The Bush administration says about 107,000 white-collar workers making $100,000 or more could lose eligibility.

The new regulations would also require overtime pay for workers earning up to $23,660. That is triple the annual salary above which overtime was previously required, an increase the Labor Department said would protect 1.3 million workers.

Harkin's amendment would let all those workers newly entitled to overtime to receive it, and would only affect those who stand to lose it.

The new rules would chiefly affect white-collar workers earning between $23,660 and $100,000. Their overtime status now depends on new definitions of the job duties of professional, administrative and executive employees.

For example, while professional employees with professional degrees have been exempt from overtime, the new rule lets employers also use certain work experience as grounds for exemption.

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