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House bill boosts wages for water projects; White House threatens veto
WASHINGTON -- Union construction workers would gain a hiring advantage for more projects under legislation the House passed Friday, the latest in a series of pro-labor measures by Democrats that President Bush has promised to veto.
The 303-108 vote involves water projects funded by federal lending. Republicans tried but failed to strip out a provision requiring contractors to pay wages equal to those prevailing locally.
The White House said advisers would recommend Bush veto the bill if it retained the Davis-Bacon Act provisions on paying prevailing wages on public works projects. The requirement typically gives an advantage to unionized companies bidding for federal contracts.
A GOP-backed amendment to eliminate the wage provision was rejected on a 280-140 vote.
Bush has also threatened to veto a broad anti-terrorism bill now on the Senate floor because it gives limited union rights to airport screeners. Bush, who has vetoed only one bill in his presidency -- a measure expanding federal funding for stem cell research -- promised another veto last week over a House-passed bill that eliminates the right of employers to demand a secret ballot election when workers try to organize.
Labor rights have quickly become a hot topic under the new Democratic majority, with Democrats pressing issues that received little attention under Republicans. One of the first acts of both the House and Senate was passing separate bills to raise the minimum wage, stuck at $5.15 an hour for the past 10 years.
The House bill passed Friday authorized $14 billion over the next four years for the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a source of low-interest loans that has not been replenished for more than a decade, partly because of the labor dispute. Davis-Bacon has not applied to wastewater project loans for the past dozen years.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Republicans, in their 12 years of running the House, had consistently voted against raising the minimum wage so "it is not surprising to me that you are not for paying a prevailing wage to workers on a public project."
Republicans responded that Davis-Bacon drives up costs for local communities and hurts minority and other small businesses overwhelmed by red tape. The bill "benefits big labor bosses at someone else's expense," said Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas.
The White House, in its statement, noted that the legislation would also expand Davis-Bacon coverage to nonfederal clean water projects, including projects financed by funds contributed solely by states and money repaid to the revolving fund.
In September 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, Bush became the fourth president to suspend Davis-Bacon for federal contracting in response to an emergency situation. He reinstated the wage law two months later.
A coalition including the Associated Builders and Contractors Inc. and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said in a letter that it was "vehemently opposed to any reapplication of Davis-Bacon requirements to this loan program" and urged lawmakers to vote against it
But supporters argued that Davis-Bacon, in addition to providing workers with more livable wages, attracted more experienced and better trained workers, and resulted in more efficient, less costly projects.
"My district needs to keep wages up, not lower our wages," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich. "We should stop this madness. We come here and it's always like a race to the bottom, who can do it for cheaper."
Terence M. O'Sullivan, general president of Laborers' International Union of North America, said the Davis-Bacon law has "long helped working families support themselves and their families and helped maintain local community economic standards."
Ross Eisenbrey, policy director at the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute, a research group in Washington, said the prevailing wage in a community is not always the union wage, but they are likely to be similar in large construction projects such as water projects.
Nonunion companies can still win a contract, but when wages are taken out of the bidding equation, union companies become more competitive and are more likely to get the contract because they tend to be more productive and efficient, he said.
It was the third water infrastructure bill approved by the House this week, after passage of a five-year, $1.7 billion bill to provide grants for sewer improvements and a $125 million bill to promote alternative water sources. The administration opposed the other two as well, saying they were too expensive. All three water bills still have to be considered by the Senate.
The bill is H.R. 720.
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