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Pressure built on lawmakers Friday to abandon their effort to prevent the Bush administration from implementing new overtime rules that opponents say would cost millions of workers the extra pay. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, one of the foremost Republican proponents of blocking the regulations, said congressional leaders have threatened to remove language killing the new rules from a huge end-of-session spending bill. If they did that, a vote by Specter and his allies against such a bill would be in effect a vote to shut down the government over the issue. Specter acknowledged that such an alternative would be unrealistic. “Does anybody have any choice? If you don’t have” the year-end spending bill, “you don’t have any money,” and federal agencies would have to close, said Specter, who faces a tough re-election fight next year in a state where organized labor is strong. The strategy was part of an effort by Congress’ Republican leaders to finish a $280 billion year-end spending bill — and other legislation on Medicare and energy — and adjourn for the year. Specter said GOP leaders were talking about amending the spending bill by removing its entire section that deals with labor, health and education — including the language that would block the overtime rules. That portion of the bill would be replaced with language to finance labor, health and education programs at last year’s levels. Specter said that change would mean $4.7 billion less for special education, global AIDS prevention and other programs supported by many members of both parties. “That’s pretty serious stuff, isn’t it,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, asked about the threat. “It might build a little bit of pressure” to finish the spending bill. Specter and another foe of the new overtime rules, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said negotiations with the administration would continue. The overtime issue is taking on heightened importance with next year’s election, particularly considering the poor jobs market. Organized labor groups are lobbying heavily against the overtime pay proposal. Many employers support them. “We remain hopeful that the Congress will do the right thing and let the department continue with the rule making,” said Randy Johnson, vice president of labor policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Labor Department spokesman Ed Frank said administration officials want the changes in overtime pay because more than a million lower-wage workers would become eligible for overtime or receive pay increases under the plan. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure members of the House and Senate know that,” he said. Both sides agree the current regulations in the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act, which haven’t been updated in several decades, are confusing and antiquated. The regulations set standards that determine what jobs must receive an hourly wage of time-and-a-half for working more than 40 hours a week. The impact of the Labor Department’s proposal, released in March and not yet completed, is difficult to measure. A final version is expected to be issued as early as next month. Many business groups support the changes because of mounting lawsuits on overtime pay against employers. Confusion over the outdated regulations “has led to an explosion of litigation that has enriched trial lawyers while doing little for rank-and-file workers,” said Katherine Lugar, National Retail Federation vice president for legislative affairs. Under the proposal, 1.3 million lower-wage workers now exempt from overtime pay for working more than 40 hours a week would be required to receive it or a salary hike, department officials say. But many white-collar workers paid more than $65,000 a year would lose their overtime pay. About 644,000 workers, from engineers to pharmacists and insurance claim adjusters, would be affected by the salary cap, officials have said. But police officers, firefighters and emergency medical technicians would not lose their premium pay. Critics claim the proposal means as many as 8 million workers would lose overtime pay and argue it would help far fewer lower-wage employees than administration officials estimate. The Senate voted 54-45 in September to block the regulations. The House had backed them this past summer, but reversed its stance last month in a nonbinding vote. Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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