Senate GOP moving to nullify Clinton rules on worker injuries

By Lizette Alvarez with Steve Greenhouse

Using an untested legislative weapon, Senate Republicans plan next week to try to repeal a far-reaching set of rules on workplace injuries that have been fiercely opposed by business groups.

Senate Republicans say they have the votes to kill the regulations, which were issued by President Bill Clinton three months ago and require businesses to provide conditions in factories and offices that protect workers from repetitive strain injuries. The House is expected to take up the measure soon after.

President Bush reacted favorably to the proposal to overturn the rules at a meeting with Congressional Republican leaders last Tuesday, aides said.

The rules were intended to protect those like secretaries, seamstresses and slaughterhouse workers from a variety of injuries, including tendonitis, slipped disks and carpal tunnel syndrome.

If the Senate and House reverse the regulations, which cover 102 million workers at six million sites, Republicans would hand business groups a major victory on an issue they have battled for a decade. The legislative move also comes at a time when President Bush is trying to quell an effort by business groups to bog down his tax proposal with corporate tax breaks.

Business groups estimate that the rule would cost anywhere from $18 billion to $120 billion to implement, figures that are disputed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The agency, which is part of the Department of Labor, said the rules would cost $4.5 billion to put into effect, and Clinton administration officials said that the rules would save employers money with gains in productivity. Business leaders also describe the regulations as onerous and overly broad, adding that the rules would drive up costs for all businesses and push some into bankruptcy.

Anticipating next wee’s face-off, business groups like the United States Chamber of Commerce and labor groups like the A.F.L.-C.I.O. have sent out legislative alerts urging their members to flood Congress with letters, e-mail messages and telephone calls The battle is likely to intensify in the coming days.

Business groups stepped up their campaign to kill the regulations, which took effect on January 16, before President Bush took office.

“We have been doing labor issues for over 15 years, and this is probably the most important to the business community,” said Randy Johnson, vice president for labor policy at the United State Chamber of Commerce. “It would cost businesses so much to comply and it would be money down the drain.”

Organized labor fought hard for the rules, which labor leaders call the most important job safety rules adopted since the Occupational Safety and Health Act was enacted three decades ago.

“What’s happening is stunning,” said Peg Seminario, the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s director for health and safety. “This rule is 10 years in the making, with 10 weeks of public hearings on it and now they want to wipe it out with not even one hearing and less than 10 hours of debate. That’s about as undemocratic a process as you can get.”

While conceding they face an uphill battle, Democratic lawmakers and union leaders said they hope to stop Republican efforts. The votes in both the Senate and House are expected to be very close.

Republicans say defeating the bill would be more difficult than usual. That is because Senator Don Nickles of Oklahoma, the Republican whip, plans to use the Congressional Review Act, which he co-sponsored into law in 1996.

The act gives Congress 60 days to reject final regulations issued by federal agencies. If the resolution is signed by the president, it would prevent the regulations from being reissued in “substantially the same form.”

To invoke the act, Senator Nickles expects to offer a joint-resolution of disapproval, which can be debated for 10 hours. But the resolution cannot be filibustered-the Democrats’ chief weapon in blocking legislation and requires 51 votes to pass.

Senator Nickles is moving the process along even more swiftly be getting 30 senators to sign a petition that bypasses the committee process.

Because the act has never been used before in Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike are headed into unchartered waters. Even the term “substantially the same form,” which is the linchpin for blocking the rules, is open to conjecture, although Democrats say it would chill all future rule making by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies.

Both the House and Senate passed a measure that would have blocked the rules last year.

“Republicans intend to sound the death knell for protections from ergonomic injuries-the most significant safety and health problem that workers face today,” said Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Mr. Clinton adopted the rules even though Congress was calling for further study to determine whether there was adequate scientific basis for ergonomics rules to reduce the 1.8 million injuries reported each year. Elizabeth Dole, who was labor secretary under former President George Bush, set procedures in motion 1990 to establish these rules.

Republicans also hope to send a warning shot next week with their use of the Congressional Review Act to overturn the rules. Just before leaving office in January, President Clinton issued a long list of regulations, many of which infuriated Republicans who saw it as a clear effort to circumvent Congress.

“It’s not only very important that this rule be rescinded, but it’s also important that Congress begin to assert itself in these areas,” said Representative Roy D Blunt, the Missouri Republican who is chief deputy whip. “We’ve avoided too many regulations by acting helpless in the face of regulators.”

To combat Republican efforts to reverse the rules, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. held a news conference here today that featured several workers who suffer from ergonomics injuries.

But businesses groups are rallying their own members, who say they are more dedicated than ever to getting the rules reversed now that there is a Republican in the White House. “I think it’s going to be a huge fight,” said Ed Gilroy of the National Coalition of Ergonomics, an association of 300 business groups.