Washington - Union pressure, rare harmony among most House Democrats and a coterie of labor-friendly Republicans led by Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) threw the House Republican leadership off their game last week and deep-sixed a bill that would have loosened overtime pay laws.
It was a sweet victory for House Democrats who, only days earlier, had been complaining that their efforts to oppose Republican bills were being stifled.
Republican leaders were forced to pull off the House calendar a "comp time" bill that opponents said could have led to the end of the 40-hour work week. Backers contended that the bill was designed to give workers more flexibility to take time off rather than pay for extra hours worked.
"I didn't think it was a serious effort to improve the workplace and labor was not part of the negotiations," King said of the bill. "It was a sop to anti-union forces in the South and the West."
King and others also contended that business interests were not as active as labor unions in advocating their support for the comp time bill. King also credited Democrats, and in particular, House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) for keeping his troops in line. While a handful of Democrats were prepared to defect, most were persuaded to stay on board.
"We worked it hard," Hoyer said. "I call it the psychology of consensus." He said he wants rank-and-file Democrats to first consider how they can be with their party before considering deviating from the party line. "
Democrats sticking together also was a way to force Republicans to put more pressure on their own party members to stick with the party line, Democrats said.
King said he had been contacted by a couple of Republican leaders, but insisted he would oppose the bill. So did Rep. Jack Quinn (R-Buffalo), who comes from a heavily unionized area, and Rep. James Walsh (R-Syracuse).
"This is one of the core issues of the labor movement," Quinn said. "Collective bargaining, the right to organize and the 40-hour work week. They fought too long to get that, to lose it."
"There was no push from the business community," added Walsh.
But Ed Frank, spokesman for the National Federation of Independent Business, the largest small-business group, said they were simply beaten out by labor's "effective campaign of dishonesty." He disputed that the bill would have undermined the 40-hour week, and said it was aimed at giving employers and employees more flexibility to "pick up a child at school or take a kid to the doctor."
As the House moves into the more contentious issues of Medicare prescription drugs and the child tax credit in the next two weeks, Democrats are hoping that the momentum from their rare victory carries over into those debates.
"Democrats saw that when we stood united, we got results," said Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), a member of the Democratic leadership team, although he cautioned that it would be harder to hold together on the next couple of big issues.
Republicans believe the Democratic impetus will peter out.
"I don't think [it will carry over]," said John Feehery, spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) "On Medicare, we are going with a bipartisan approach and they are either going to be on board or out in left field. And on the child tax credits, they are fighting on our territory. At the end of the day we are going to get more tax cuts than they may be comfortable with, but that's what happens when you run the place."
The Senate last week approved a bill to give a child tax credit to 6.5 million low-wage families. They were not given the credit in the large tax bill that Congress approved and President George W. Bush signed late last month. The Senate bill would send checks of $400 per child to the poor families. Republicans in the House are more inclined to add other tax breaks to the bill.
On Medicare, a bipartisan group of senators last week agreed on a deal to provide prescription drug coverage for the elderly. Drugs are not now covered under Medicare. Liberal Democrats are concerned that the deal does not provide enough drug coverage, and conservative Republicans would like to steer more Medicare beneficiaries into managed care programs to get a prescription drug benefit.
Those positions could make getting a Medicare prescription drug bill through the House difficult, though Republican leaders have pledged to do so before the start of the Independence Day recess June 23.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.