WASHINGTON -- The House voted Thursday to let the Bush administration move ahead with proposed rules that could stop at least 644,000 white-collar workers from receiving overtime pay, heeding a White House veto threat and taking the side of business in its battle against unions.
Lawmakers voted 213-210 to reject a Democratic provision that would have derailed the regulations. Unless a law is passed preventing it, the proposed rules will take effect, perhaps as early as the end of this year.
Senate Democrats had been planning a similar effort to block the regulations. But with the outcome in the House vote, a Senate attempt would seem to be little more than a political statement.
The House vote was a victory for President Bush and Congress' Republican leaders. With the ranks of jobless Americans growing, Democrats are hoping to use Bush's stewardship of the still-weak economy in next year's presidential and congressional elections by arguing that the GOP has inadequately protected workers.
"Today's action is a victory for workers and employers alike," Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement, thanking supporters for a "very courageous and principled vote."
GOP aided by three Dems
Three Democrats joined 210 Republicans in opposing the provision. Voting for it were 195 Democrats, 14 Republicans and 1 independent.
AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said the administration effort showed "a callous disregard for the millions of workers who depend on that extra income to make ends meet."
The proposed rules would require overtime -- pay equal to one-and-a-half times the hourly rate -- for as many as 1.3 million additional low-income workers when they work more than 40 hours per week, the department said. Democrats did not oppose that expansion of the number of workers who would get the extra money.
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 says the figure is at least 644,000.
The Democratic provision would have blocked any Labor Department regulations that would deprive workers of overtime pay they already receive.
They offered it as an amendment to a bill providing $138 billion for labor, education and health programs next year.
"Overtime is not a luxury, it is a necessity for millions of American families," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., one of the amendment's sponsors.
Republicans said the new Labor Department rules would clarify confusing regulations and reduce the growing number of lawsuits by workers seeking overtime.
"The only winners under this amendment are the trial lawyers," said Rep. Charles Norwood, R-Ga.
In a statement, the White House said the proposal would help 1.3 million low-wage workers by changing "outdated overtime laws" and threatened a Bush veto of the spending bill if the House voted to block the rules.
The overtime fight loomed as one of the year's major issues for both labor and corporate America, and no one was pulling their punches.
Both sides sent lobbyists to the Capitol and barraged lawmakers with phone calls, e-mails and letters. Both sides promised to include the vote among those they tally at election time to rate whether legislators are sympathetic to their causes. Among the groups working the issue were the AFL-CIO, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Restaurant Association and the International Union of Police Associations.
The new rules, proposed in March, would require overtime for workers earning up to $22,100 a year, up from the current ceiling of $8,060 set in 1975. Numerous other changes would also be made in the complex regulations, including definitions of which administrative, professional and executive jobs qualify for overtime.
Businesses have complained they must pay overtime to already well-paid workers and are being deluged by lawsuits from workers demanding overtime. Unions say the new rules would let employers stop paying overtime to workers including licensed practical nurses, paralegals, chefs, editors and dental hygienists -- though it would not affect those covered by union contracts.
The overall bill the House considered would provide a 2.7 percent increase over this year's total in the largest of the 11 domestic spending measures Congress considers every year. It was approved 215-208, with some lawmakers voting in baseball uniforms for the annual game between House Democrats and Republicans.
The bill would provide modest increases over last year for low-income school districts, AIDS treatment, Head Start, job training and biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health. Democrats said the boosts were inadequate and fell below amounts promised in earlier high-profile bills.
By 222-199, the House rejected a Democratic effort to roll back a portion of recent tax reductions for millionaires and use the money to beef up spending.
"Hiking taxes to pay for big government programs is as dead as disco," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.
Democrats also challenged Bush on pocketbook issues in the Senate Thursday, forcing a vote on benefits to the long-term jobless. The vote was 48-48, 12 short of the 60 needed to overcome a parliamentary hurdle raised by Republicans.
The proposal by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., would have provided assistance to an estimated 1 million individuals whose benefits expired before lawmakers approved an extension in May, plus residents of some high-unemployment states.
The House bill is H.R. 2660.