WASHINGTON – A corporate tax bill stalled in the Senate on Wednesday, unable to navigate around a standoff triggered by Democrats pushing for an election-year tussle on overtime pay (search) for white-collar workers.
The standstill delayed work on a tax cut for American manufacturers that also carries the keys to ending a trade dispute with Europe. Punitive European tariffs (search), imposed on some American exports in March, escalate each month until the bill becomes law.
Republicans said Democrats wanted to drag down the bill with unrelated issues, putting the presidential election ahead of the nation's economic health.
"This is a partisan game that's being played of gridlock here in Washington, D.C., and it's about playing politics, presidential politics, on the floor of the United States Senate," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
Democrats said Republicans refused to address worries of workers destined to lose their extra pay if the Bush administration goes through with planned changes to overtime rules.
"Once again, Republicans have put the profits of big business ahead of the pay that 8 million American workers have earned," said Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
Republican leaders lost an effort Wednesday to speed the bill's passage by forbidding debate on unrelated items. The 51-47 vote in favor of that motion fell 9 votes short of the 60 votes needed to prevail.
Democrats have also shown interest in using the corporate tax cut to explore ways to curtail the movement of American jobs overseas.
The effort on overtime pay would have blocked any changes to federal labor laws that stripped overtime pay from workers now eligible for the benefit. The Labor Department last year drafted new overtime rules that would redefine the blue-collar and white-collar jobs eligible for extra wages.
The administration said the new rules would end lawsuits over the confusing and antiquated labor rules in place today, while also making millions of lower-income workers eligible for overtime pay.
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said the changes straighten out "a morass of regulations on the issue of overtime pay, which has lead to a litigation frenzy."
Critics argued the proposed rules threaten overtime pay for as many as 8 million workers, including many white-collar workers and veterans now eligible for extra wages.
"Seems to me that they're more willing to pay tariffs to Europe than they are overtime to American workers," said Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat pushing to block some of the administration's changes.
Last year, six Republicans broke with the administration and joined Democrats to make sure no workers lose their extra pay.