The House voted 223 to 193 yesterday 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 the Midwest, joined a solid bloc of Democrats to prevent the Labor Department from enforcing the regulations, which took effect Aug. 23. But it is unclear whether yesterday'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.
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.
Yesterday's vote came after months of political contention. Democratic presidential nominee John F. 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 their impact, and assert 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," Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said.
Under the new rules, workers who earn less than $23,660 annually will automatically become 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 pay 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 perform certain supervisory or managerial tasks.
"There's so much confusion on the facts," said Rep. Sherwood L. Boehlert (N.Y.), 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 that they consider the overtime fight part of a far broader effort to showcase their support for working- and middle-class swing voters in the coming elections.
"This is important to single moms, working moms with two jobs, who need overtime to pay the bills," said House Minority Whip Steny H. 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," Boehner said.
The House later approved the underlying bill, 388 to 13. With other legislation stalled, annual appropriations bills this week became the 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 what they called inadequate protection for ports and other key installations.