House Republican leaders returned from the Memorial Day recess confident that two days was plenty of time to beat back a months-long effort by organized labor to stop passage of legislation allowing employers to grant time off, instead of extra pay, when employees work overtime.
They set a June 5 floor vote — the Thursday after the break — for the bill (HR 1119), which would allow companies to offer employees "comp time" equal to one-and-a-half-hours off for every hour of overtime worked. The measure has consistently faced strong opposition from labor unions.
But the GOP whip operation had prevailed in past legislative battles with labor, even with the defections of union-friendly Republicans. They typically were able to cajole on-the-fence party members and attract a smattering of Democrats.
This time turned out to be different.
House leaders, conceding they did not have enough votes, pulled the bill from the floor agenda the night of June 4. The action was a rare congressional victory for the AFL-CIO, which organized an aggressive outreach campaign that included personal visits to lawmakers from Teamsters and union workers.
Although national business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers lobbied for the bill, lawmakers said they did not hear as much from their local business leaders.
"This is not [about] phone calls," Rep. Rob Simmons, a Republican who represents a working-class district in Connecticut, said of the labor campaign. "This is in my office, in my face, sitting for an hour on a number of different occasions."
Simmons, who was elected in 2002 with 54 percent of the vote, had signed on as cosponsor to the bill March 6. He withdrew his support April 8.
Republicans also were unable to pick up significant Democratic votes in large part because of a renewed, effective drive led by Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md.
Ultimately, House leaders were left in a time crunch they could not make up. House Majority Whip Roy Blunt of Missouri said his group worked hard, but still probably needed more time. "It's a tough thing to do the first week back" from recess, Blunt said.
They also vowed to bring the bill back to the floor.
"Because of the campaign of lies waged by the leaders of organizations like the AFL-CIO, private-sector working mothers and fathers continue to be denied the right to choose paid time off with their families instead of overtime pay," said John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, which sent the bill to the floor. "We fully expect that we'll have another opportunity to pass this measure during the 108th Congress on behalf of busy working mothers and fathers."
Supporters of the bill, sponsored by Rep. Judy Biggert, R-Ill., touted it as a worker-friendly measure that would allow people the option to spend more time with their families. They said it would be especially beneficial for the 70 percent of mothers who work outside the home and have children under the age of 18.
They named the bill "The Family Time Flexibility Act" and wanted to schedule a floor vote around Mother's Day, May 11.
The bill would make significant changes to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which mandated that workers be paid 150 percent of their hourly rate for work beyond 40 hours a week.
Under the bill, workers could accrue up to 160 hours of compensatory time a year, with any unused portion paid out as cash at the end of the year. The bill would not apply to executives, public- sector workers and those covered under collective bargaining agreements. The Education and the Workforce Committee approved the bill April 9 on a 27-22 party-line vote. (CQ Weekly, p. 1001)
Proponents knew that labor unions would argue the bill was a fundamental attack on the American tradition of the 40-hour workweek. Organized labor and Democrats had made identical arguments in 1996 and 1997, when similar legislation passed the House but was blocked in the Senate.
"They have made a mountain of a molehill," said Sandy Boyd, vice president for human resources policy for the National Association of Manufacturers.
Proponents tried to address those concerns by placing provisions into the bill that would require a written agreement between the employer and the employee for the decision to go into effect and allow the worker to rescind the agreement at any time. In addition, the bill would expire after five years.
But labor remained unconvinced. They noted the bill states employees must provide reasonable notice when they intend to use their comp time hours for days off. They argued that would allow employers to dictate when the time off could be taken.
"The employer has the ultimate decision-making authority on when a worker can use comp time, and can deny the time off by simply saying it would disrupt business," said AFL-CIO president John J. Sweeney.
Critics also noted the Labor Department is in the middle of rewriting new regulations over what types of jobs would be entitled to overtime pay, the first such review in 50 years. The department's preliminary proposal would allow 1.3 million low-income workers who are exempt from overtime pay to be eligible for such bonus pay. But about 650,000 white-collar workers would lose their status for overtime pay.
"It's part of the grand plan to undermine again opportunity and the rights of workers," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Labor unions focused their attention on members who were not in Congress in 1997, the last time the House voted on the issue. During that vote, 18 Republican members voted against the bill, including 12 who still serve in Congress. They also went after Republicans in competitive districts.
The labor outreach included calls, faxes and e-mails, but the most effective lobbying tactic involved workers visiting lawmakers in their district offices and providing them with real examples of how they would be adversely affected under the bill.
Labor officials were involved in lobbying on other bills this year, but they specifically targeted the Biggert legislation in a bid to stem a losing streak in the GOP-controlled House. In December 2001, the House passed by one vote, 215-214, legislation that would grant the president greater authority to negotiate trade deals, a measure that labor argued would cost American jobs. (2001 Almanac, p. 19-3). Republicans, at the behest of business lobbyists, also were able to rescind Clinton-era regulations on repetitive motion injuries by 17 votes on March 7, 2001. (2001 Almanac, p. 13-3).
Construction workers described for lawmakers how overtime pay allowed them to bulk up their bank account because the seasonal nature of their jobs means there are times of the year they might not be working.
Rep. Jack Quinn, R-N.Y., , who is one of a group of labor-friendly Republicans who break with their party's pro-business agenda on issues such as trade and minimum wage, noted that many of the construction workers in his Buffalo district are not able to work during the area's harsh winters.
Simmons heard from defense and other workers in his middle-class Connecticut district. He said hospital workers spoke of the pressure to work overtime to ensure their care facility would be properly staffed to help the injured and emergency patients.
"They made it very clear that if they worked overtime they want to be paid," he said. "Speaking for myself, if I were to work overtime, I would want to receive money for that."
Rep. Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania was another Republican who said he could not support the bill. Elected by a margin of 5,520 votes in 2002, the freshman Gerlach represents suburbs southeast of Philadelphia in a region that was once bustling with railroads and heavy industry.
Gerlach said he heard from Teamsters, steelworkers and carpenters urging him to vote against the bill. But he did not hear anything from his local business leaders.
"I have not heard from employers in my district that it is a big problem," Gerlach said. "The bottom line is that I just don't see the need to do it. When you talk to our business people back in our district, their concern is with taxes, regulation and [the] increasing cost of health care. Those are the issues we ought to be working on."
Counting the Votes
As more Republicans expressed resistance, House GOP leaders could not get a firm vote count. Quinn estimated they needed about 12 votes to pass the measure and would need to make that up with Democratic votes.
"Members really don't mind walking the plank if it's for a cause ... if it's going to get done," said Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga.
But, Kingston said, they are less likely to do so if they believe the legislation will not pass the Senate, which happened with the overtime legislation during the 1990s.
At a June 4 morning press conference, House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce of Ohio acknowledged they would need some Democratic help to pass the bill.
To aid in this effort with moderate Democrats, the Chamber of Commerce sent a letter to House members and told them that the vote on the bill would be included in its 2003 vote scorecard.
Early in the week, <Hoyer> said he felt good about his vote count, but did not want to appear overconfident knowing the successful history Republicans have had on the House floor since they took control in 1995. <Hoyer> had been credited by members with limiting defections within the diverse Democratic ranks.
For instance, on the recent tax cut measure (HR 2 — PL 108-27), the Democrats lost seven votes. In 2001, 28 Democrats voted for the Bush tax cut (PL 107-16). (2001 Almanac, p. 18-3)
"We have an opportunity to prevail," <Hoyer> said June 2. "We are very close to 218 [enough to defeat the bill]. I'd say we've got 218, but I think that's unwise."
During the 1997 vote, 13 Democrats supported the bill. Ten still serve in Congress, including cosponsor Charles W. Stenholm of Texas. Rep. Cal Dooley, D-Calif., said he would vote again for the measure, but Rep. Jane Harman of California, who now serves as the ranking Democrat on the Select Intelligence Committee, said she would probably remain undecided up until the vote.
In the end, Democrats never had to worry about a final vote once it became apparent the afternoon of June 4 that the bill probably would be pulled. Boehner sent out official notice at 8:42 p.m. that night.
But by then, <Hoyer>'s office has already put out a press release that proclaimed: "House Democrats Force GOP to Pull 'Comp Time' Bill That Could Have Ended 40 Hour Work Week."
In the Senate, Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has sponsored a companion bill (S 317) that is broader than the House version. A spokeswoman said the legislation is a priority for Gregg, but no markup is imminent.
Jonathan Allen and Adam Graham-Silverman contributed to this story.
Source: CQ Weekly
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