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Dean joins Democratic rivals' criticism of new labor proposal

Howard Dean talks with supporters after a pancake breakfast Wednesday in Muscatine, Iowa.
Howard Dean talks with supporters after a pancake breakfast Wednesday in Muscatine, Iowa.

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MUSCATINE, Iowa (CNN) -- Democratic presidential front-runner Howard Dean joined his rivals Wednesday in attacking President Bush over a U.S. Department of Labor guide that tells employers how to avoid paying workers overtime.

Dean, speaking to about 700 people at an Iowa pancake breakfast, called the guide "disgusting," adding, "this is why this president needs a one-way bus ticket back to Crawford, Texas."

The Iowa Caucuses, held this year on January 19, are the first in the nation during a presidential election year. The results are closely watched as indicators of how well presidential candidates are doing. (CNN.com's interactive Election Calendar)

The White House says the proposed wages and hours rule would allow 1.3 million white-collar workers who aren't eligible for time-and-a-half to be paid overtime. Critics say the rule would eliminate overtime pay for another 8 million workers.

The proposed rules could take effect by March, but labor unions and congressional Democrats hope to block their enactment. In an estimate of the proposal's cost, the Labor Department says employers could either raise workers' salaries to a level that exempts them from overtime rules -- about $22,000 per year -- by reclassifying their job duties or by making them hourly employees.

"The Department of Labor of the U.S. government -- supposed to be the guardian of ordinary working people and ordinary working Americans -- is now in charge of telling corporations how they can cut wages for the most vulnerable people in America," Dean, the former Vermont governor said. "This is disgusting."

White House spokesman Scott McClellan defended the guide Tuesday, saying it was a necessary analysis "to provide employers with options to comply" with the proposed rules.

"It would help simplify the rules and make them more relevant to our modern work force," McClellan said. "It will enable the Department of Labor to be better equipped to enforce the law to protect more workers."

Both the House and Senate have voted to prevent the rules from taking effect, but a conference committee dropped the measure from a major spending bill after the White House threatened a veto. Opponents hope Congress will vote on the matter again when it reconvenes January 20.

Several Democrats seeking to unseat Bush in 2004 have condemned the guidelines. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry told MSNBC the Bush administration was moving to deprive workers of overtime pay "while they take care of people earning more than $200,000 a year."

In written statements, retired Gen. Wesley Clark accused administration officials of "shortchanging America's hardest-working families," and North Carolina Sen. John Edwards said they "should be ashamed of themselves."

"If a man or woman is qualified and puts in more than 40 hours a week, they should be paid time-and-a-half and not given the run-around by this president and his corporate friends," Edwards said.

Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman said the Bush administration was "working overtime to make life harder for working families."

"The Bush assault on working people won't stop until we give the president a pink slip," Lieberman said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. "This administration simply doesn't share the values of the American people."


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