WASHINGTON -- The Republican-controlled Senate voted yesterday to block new Labor Department rules that critics said would deny overtime pay to millions of white-collar workers, handing an embarrassing rebuff to the Bush administration.
The Senate voted 52 to 47 to scrap the new rules, despite recent changes to address earlier criticism, an intense lobbying campaign by Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, and a last-ditch GOP effort to avert defeat by proposing a long list of jobs for which overtime pay could not be eliminated.
Five moderate Republicans broke ranks to vote with nearly all Democrats in favor of keeping the administration from cutting anyone's overtime pay. "This was a great victory for American workers and families" and sent a "clear message to the administration," said Senator Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa, who led the fight.
The issue has enormous resonance in an election year for workers in a vast array of jobs, ranging from nurses to oil rig workers, who, according to Democrats, could lose overtime pay.
But the ultimate fate of Harkin's proposal was unclear. It was approved as an amendment to a corporate tax bill that faces continuing obstacles in the Senate. The House voted in favor of blocking the new regulations last year but has not acted this year.
The dispute began last year, when the Labor Department proposed the first comprehensive updating of the rules in 50 years, including broadening coverage for low-paid workers but cutting back on eligibility for those who are better paid -- as many as 8 million, according to Democrats. In response, the Senate voted to block the plan and the House voted to go along, although GOP negotiators later bowed to veto threats from the White House and agreed to accept the Labor Department plan.
The department rewrote its proposal last month, substantially reducing the number of workers who might lose their overtime pay under a final rule that is due to take effect in late August. Workers could still qualify for overtime if they earned up to $100,000 a year, instead of $65,000, as initially proposed. Police, firefighters and other first responders were also protected. Eligibility for low-income workers was also expanded. The department said "few if any" workers making less than $100,000 would lose their eligibility for overtime pay. Democrats argued 4 million workers might lose their overtime pay.