WASHINGTON – The House voted 223-193 Thursday to block the Bush administration’s sweeping new eligibility rules for overtime pay, giving Democrats a significant victory that they hope will boost the party’s standing among middle-class voters in key battleground states in the fall election.
Twenty-two pro-labor Republicans, most of them from the north and midwest, joined a solid bloc of Democrats voting to prevent the Labor Department from enforcing the regulations, which took effect Aug. 23. But it is unclear if Thursday’s action will stand.
The White House warned this week that President Bush might veto the underlying bill – a $142.5 billion measure funding education, worker training and health programs in 2005 – if it contains the overtime amendment attached to it Thursday.
Last year the House added a similar provision blocking the rules, but GOP leaders, under strong pressure from the White House, jettisoned it during final House-Senate negotiations on the bill. But repeating that maneuver could be more politically perilous as the election nears, according to some legislative aides.
Business lobbies, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Restaurant Association, favor the new rules, while major labor organizations have been seeking to undo them.
Thursday’s vote came after months of political contention. Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry has vowed to repeal the rules if elected, and Democrats have denounced the regulations as “the biggest pay cut in history.” But Republicans contend that Democrats have greatly overstated the impact, and insist that the changes will benefit workers by extending automatic eligibility to as many as 1.3 million new members of the labor force.
“The new rules mean more overtime for more workers,” said Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Under the new rules, workers who earn less than $23,660 annually will become automatically eligible for overtime pay, compared with the current threshold of $8,060, which was set in the 1970s. But critics say this gain is more than offset by other provisions that exempt certain administrative and white collar workers from overtime even if they work more than 40 hours a week.
They contend that a wide range of employees, including computer technicians, nurses, journalists, teachers, cooks and funeral home employees could become exempt if they performed certain supervisory or managerial tasks.
“There’s so much confusion on the facts,” said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert of New York, a Republican who voted to block the rules. “We’ve got to expand eligibility for overtime, and I want to make sure we don’t have any unintended effects.”
Aside from the substantive controversy, Democrats made clear they considered the overtime fight part of a far broader effort to showcase their support for working and middle-class swing voters in the coming election.
“This is important to single moms, working moms with two jobs, who need overtime to pay the bills,” said House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md. “It can resonate in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.”
Against this background, GOP leaders had little success over the past two days trying to bring dissident northern Republicans back to the fold. Even a last-minute letter from the Labor Department’s solicitor, warning that scrapping the rules could leave the department with no ability to enforce any overtime rules for better-paid workers, failed to rally enough votes to defeat the Democratic backed provision..
“This is political noise. It’s an election year,” said Boehner.
The House later approved the underlying bill 388-13. With other legislation stalled, annual appropriations bills this week became main vehicles for political battling in both chambers. In the Senate, Democrats used debate on a $33 billion homeland security bill to criticize the Bush administration for inadequate protection for ports and key installations.