WASHINGTON – A House vote to overturn new Bush administration rules on which workers qualify for overtime (search) pay was hailed by Democrats trying to convince undecided voters they are the party that better protects worker rights.
In a sharp rebuke to President Bush (search), the House voted 223-193 Thursday to stop the Labor Department from carrying out the new rules. House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called it a "rare victory for middle-class Americans."
"President Bush's overtime regulations will affect 6 million workers," with some losing 25 percent of their incomes, Pelosi said.
Those figures were strongly disputed by the White House and the Labor Department, which said the biggest overhaul of overtime rules in more than 50 years would add more than 1 million mostly lower-paid workers to those eligible for overtime. The new regulations went into effect on Aug. 23.
"I do think the clarity that comes with these new rules will help better protect American workers," said Rep. John Boehner (search), R-Ohio, chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee.
The overtime vote was an amendment to a $142.5 billion spending bill for health, education and job training programs in 2005. The White House has threatened to veto the entire bill if the overtime language is included.
It's unlikely to get to that point. House Republican Whip Roy Blunt, R-Ohio, said he was confident the language would be stripped when the House and Senate, which has yet to consider the bill, meet to work out the final version. By that time, he said, there will be "overwhelming evidence" the new rules are benefiting tens of thousands of workers.
But Democrats and labor unions said the vote was still another milestone in the struggle to stop the rule changes. Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry (search) said the vote "underscores the bipartisan opposition to George Bush's war on overtime pay."
Twenty-two Republicans joined all 200 voting Democrats and one independent in voting for the amendment sponsored by Reps. David Obey, D-Wis., and George Miller, D-Calif.
The Senate on Thursday also challenged the Bush administration's policy of restricting travel to Cuba. And on Wednesday the Senate disregarded a White House veto threat and voted to prohibit Bush from giving federal immigration jobs to private workers.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who has led opposition to the overtime rules in the Senate, said it was the fifth time in a year that Congress has voted against the rules. "Clearly, President Bush needs to listen to the message Congress is sending."
The Obey-Miller amendment would protect overtime eligibility for any worker who had it before Aug. 23. It would preserve one provision of the new rules that expands overtime pay to workers earning up to $23,660.
Opponents of the rules and their supporters have presented vastly different scenarios of their possible effects. Opponents warn that the overtime protections of some 6 million workers - chefs, nurses, police officers, journalists, athletic trainers, lower-level computer employees and those who perform small amounts of supervisory work - would be weakened by the rules.
American Federation of Teachers President Edward McElroy said millions, including 30,000 early childhood and Head Start teachers, "stand to lose a significant portion of their income if the Bush administration has its way."
But the Labor Department said 1.3 million workers who earn less than $23,660 a year would become eligible, while about 107,000 white-collar workers making $100,000 or more could lose eligibility. It said increased clarity on who is entitled to overtime would also reduce the confusion that has led to expensive lawsuits.
The department said the amendment would put the overtime rights of millions in jeopardy because the government could no longer protect those making more than $23,660. "Especially hard-hit are police, firefighters, construction workers and others whose overtime rights were explicitly guaranteed for the first time in the new rules," said Alfred B. Robinson, Jr., acting administrator for the Wage and Hour Division.
Republican Rep. Steven LaTourette of Ohio, who voted for the amendment, suggested there was a middle ground. "I would hope this vote, taken together with some votes in the Senate, will let the administration say, `Well, wait a minute, let's go back and revisit this case.'"