- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2003

President Bush’s courtship of labor unions has crumbled over the administration’s unwavering commitment to allow more flexibility in overtime rules, a political conflict that now embroils the Senate.

Republicans and the Teamsters union have seen eye to eye on a few issues — most notably exploring a small portion of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil — giving rise to the idea that Mr. Bush would be the third Republican the union has endorsed for president since Ronald Reagan in 1980.

But labor unions are united against an attempt by the Bush administration to rewrite the rules governing overtime pay. The Labor Department wants to allow businesses more flexibility in offering compensatory time off rather than paying overtime. Democrats and unions claim millions will be denied the overtime pay they count on to support their families.

The White House threat to veto the spending bill for the Labor Department and the Health and Human Services Department if it contains an amendment to overturn new overtime rules has scuttled the fragile alliance.

Teamsters President James P. Hoffa told the Associated Press last week it “would be difficult to imagine” his union would endorse Mr. Bush because “I don’t think he understands the economy” or “the problems working families are having.”

Mr. Bush was also expected to deliver a taped address to the Teamsters at its 100th-anniversary celebration last week, but did not. The union has endorsed Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, Missouri Democrat, for president and given no indication that support could swing to Mr. Bush if Mr. Gephardt fails to get his party’s nomination.

“The Teamsters have really had an issue-by-issue approach with the Bush administration,” union spokesman Rob Black said. “We have no permanent allies, only permanent interests.

“Clearly, the Teamsters are going to bring all of our strength to bear and elect Mr. Gephardt as our next president,” Mr. Black said. “Mr. Hoffa has made it clear that it’s highly unlikely that the Teamsters would back the president if our efforts for Gephardt were not successful.”

An amendment to the Labor-HHS appropriations bill offered by Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, would stop the Labor Department from rewriting the 50-year-old overtime rules. An identical amendment was defeated by just three votes in the House in July and a Senate vote scheduled for this morning is expected to be just as close.

Democrats predict a narrow victory that will dare Mr. Bush to issue his first veto on a spending bill that includes many popular programs, such as education and health care.

“I think we’ll be able to pull it off by one or two votes,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.

Sandra Boyd, director of employment policy at the National Association of Manufacturers, said she sees a close vote that goes the president’s way. Regardless, she said, unions are gearing up for the 2004 presidential election and this issue is the springboard.

“I’ve listened to an awful lot of the debate, and it’s been a lot of politics and very little discussion of what the proposed rule changes are about,” she said. “[Unions] decided that this is an opportunity to shore up their base. This is part of their anti-Bush administration campaign.”

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