Washington Democrats hailed a House vote Thursday opposing administration plans to rewrite decades-old rules on overtime pay, saying it was a clear signal to the Labor Department that new rules denying benefits to millions of workers were unacceptable.
The 221-203 vote to block the rule changes has no binding effect: it merely states the House position in upcoming House-Senate negotiations on a $137.6 billion spending bill for health, education and labor programs for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.
But coupled with a 54-45 Senate vote against the rules last month, the House action complicates both passage of the spending bill and implementation of the rules. President Bush has threatened to veto the spending bill if it includes the prohibition on the overtime changes, which are strongly backed by business groups.
The administration, said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California, "overreached on this because they went into suburbia" in defining the workers who could be affected by the new rules.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the Senate leader on the issue, said the House vote should discourage the administration's effort to restrict overtime eligibility while proceeding with plans to extend overtime to more low-income workers.
The Labor Department says the proposed rules would require overtime -- pay equal to 1 1/2 times the hourly rate -- for as many as 1.3 million additional low-income workers when they work more than 40 hours per week. Democrats support this expansion, which raises a 28-year-old ceiling under which overtime must be paid from $8,060 per year to $22,100 per year.
But Democrats and unions say at least 8 million white-collar workers now required to get overtime would lose it due to new definitions of jobs that would be exempt from the extra pay. The Labor Department puts the figure at up to 644,000.
The changes, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement, are long overdue. "We strongly believe," she said, "that the regulatory process should move forward to benefit workers."
Thursday's House vote was a reversal of a 213-210 vote to defeat the Democrat-backed language when the House passed its version of the spending bill last July.
Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said the administration, because of continued high unemployment across the nation and problems in Iraq, doesn't have the iron control it once had over Republican House members. GOP leaders, he said, "have less ability to intimidate their members than they had a few weeks ago."