The Senate Appropriations Committee voted yesterday to block the Bush administration's controversial new overtime pay rules, but only after the Senate's most senior Republican warned that a slew of such legislative riders could complicate final deals on bills needed to fund the federal government in fiscal 2005.
The provision, approved 16 to 13, was attached to a $142 billion bill funding the Labor, Education, and Health and Human Services departments next year. The House attached a similar provision to its version of the bill last week, defying a threat by the White House to veto the entire bill unless Congress gives way on the issue.
Under the administration's three-week-old overtime regulations, individuals earning up to $23,600 a year would automatically be eligible for overtime pay, compared with the previous threshold of $8,060. But pro-labor lawmakers charge that the rules would allow employers to forgo overtime pay for thousands of higher-paid workers.
Although annual appropriations bills are always vehicles for riders that stand little chance of passing on their own, the practice is a source of frustration this year to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), the Senate's longest-serving Republican and the chairman of the Appropriations Committee.
Stevens, who has vowed to send the 2005 spending bills to the president before his term as chairman expires at the end of the year, sees the flurry of legislative provisions as a potential obstacle to that goal.
"We should stick to our work," he shouted at one point yesterday, when Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) pressed for legislative language on the education, labor and health bill that would end large federal subsidies to banks making loans to students.
She withdrew the amendment only after Stevens promised to incorporate in the bill language to resolve the problem before the measure goes to the floor.
The issue is one of many that could complicate final agreement between Congress and the White House on 11 spending bills.
In a bipartisan vote, the House approved a provision preventing the Internal Revenue Service from hiring private contractors to collect taxes. It was attached to an $89 billion bill paying for Treasury and Transportation department programs and operations in 2005.
When debate resumes on that bill next week, it could become the vehicle for an even more far-reaching rider backed by some Washington area lawmakers -- a measure drastically revising the administration's rules allowing private contractors to bid for jobs now performed by government workers. The White House has threatened to veto the bill if it contains that language.
Other pending bills contain riders easing trade restrictions on Cuba and limiting a section of the USA Patriot Act that permits searches of library records.
On Tuesday, House members passed up a chance to deny themselves their annual automatic pay raise of about $4,000, when they defeated a procedural move that could have opened the issue for debate.
Meanwhile, major spending issues remain to be worked out. The Senate committee's version of the 2005 foreign aid spending bill, approved yesterday, would provide less than the administration sought for its signature Millennium Challenge Corp., though funding would be increased by $120 million over this year. Funding for HIV/AIDS programs would fall short of the authorized level, and the committee voted to reduce the money for the Export-Import Bank and the economic support fund.
The AIDS and Millennium Challenge funds are part of the $19.5 billion foreign aid bill.
The House has approved a similar reduction for the Millennium Challenge, as lawmakers have shown little hesitation in shifting money from that Bush priority to their own.