Senate passes amendment blocking overtime pay change

Six Republican senators today joined Democrats in passing an amendment to block controversial Bush administration rules that critics said would cause millions of workers to lose the right to overtime pay.

The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would effectively prevent the Labor Department from issuing a proposed regulation that would make it easier for employers to classify workers as exempt from overtime eligibility. Harkin said he "saw a lot of arm-twisting" among Republicans during the vote, but praised the six Republicans for having "stepped up" despite the pressure.

GOP Sens. Ben Nighthorse Campbell of Colorado, Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Olympia Snowe of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Ted Stevens of Alaska voted with Democrats to block the rule, while Democratic Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia voted with Republicans to support it.

Despite a threat by President Bush to veto the massive Labor-HHS spending bill if it includes the provision blocking the overtime rules, Democrats said they hope to preserve it in conference.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Democrats have a "good shot" at winning a motion to instruct House conferees to adopt the Senate's stance on the overtime rule. House staffers, however, said the timing for a motion to instruct is unclear.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said if the measure is not included in the final conference report, critics of the Labor Department rules could pass a resolution of disapproval once the department issues them.

The Labor Department's proposed rules could have an impact on overtime pay for federal employees. The Office of Personnel Management is in charge of overseeing overtime rules in the federal sector. OPM's current criteria for deciding if an employee is exempt or nonexempt are based on the Labor Department's criteria.

OPM was not involved in the Labor Department's revision efforts, but because its rules are so similar to Labor's, it's possible that OPM will follow Labor's suit. OPM would have to propose its own regulatory changes for federal agencies to be affected.

Business groups, which overwhelmingly support the proposed Labor Department rules, blasted the Senate vote, saying that Democratic estimates about the number of workers who would lose overtime are inflated.

The Labor Department said the rule change will cause 644,000 workers to lose overtime pay, but the Economic Policy Institute estimates that 8 million will lose eligibility for overtime.

In a statement, the National Retail Federation said the Senate "squandered" the chance to modernize the overtime rules. The National Federation of Independent Business said it would include the vote in a scorecard sent to members.

"Updating overtime regulations is essential to our members because it will clarify which workers are eligible for overtime and which are not," said NFIB Senior Vice President Dan Danner. "Making this determination easier for small business owners will cut down on the number of costly litigation between employers and employees."