By Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Republican-led House of Representatives passed a bill on Wednesday to give workers more time off - rejecting criticism from the White House, unions, women's groups and others that the measure is a sham that would force more work for less pay.
Backed by business, the bill is part of an effort by budget-slashing Republicans to project a kinder and gentler image, particularly with women and working families.
On a nearly party-line vote of 223-204, the House approved the measure and sent it to the Senate where President Barack Obama's majority Democrats appear certain to kill it.
The bill would permit workers in the private sector, like those now in the public sector, to swap overtime pay for compensatory time off. They would get 1-1/2 hours time off for each hour of overtime, based on a standard 40-hour work week.
"There is no reason in the world for anyone to object to this bill," said House Republican leader Eric Cantor, a leading force behind the legislation.
Republican Representative Martha Roby, chief sponsor of the measure, said: "Our message to the American people is this: We want to get Washington out of the way of how you use your time."
"I'm a mom," Roby said. "This (bill) is about helping working moms and dads. This is about the ability to spend time at home. This could change lives."
Critics - including the AFL-CIO, the nation's biggest federation of unions, and the National Partnership for Women and Families - complain that despite Republican claims to the contrary the measure lacks adequate enforcement.
Opponents say employers could pressure workers to take time off, not overtime pay, effectively shrinking their paychecks.
The White House, in a veto threat on Monday, wrote: "This legislation undermines the existing right to hard-earned overtime pay ... while misrepresenting itself as a workplace flexibility measure."
Republicans rejected such complaints. They noted that the bill mandates that time off in lieu of overtime pay would be voluntary and would guard against coercion by employers.
AMENDS 1938 LAW
Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, said labor laws need to be updated to reflect the changing times.
She said the bill would amend the 1938 "Fair Labor Standards Act to allow private sector employers to provide time off instead of overtime compensation if that's what the employee prefers."
Cantor has pushed for "workplace flexibility" as he tries to rebrand his party after last year's elections, which saw Republicans take a drubbing.
While not wavering from conservative principles, such as opposition to tax hikes, Cantor expressed a new willingness to help the needy and working families.
On Wednesday, Cantor sought to rally support for the bill, declaring: "This act will help parents all across America."
Democrats disagreed. One by one, House Democratic women stood on the chamber's floor to denounce Republicans for bringing up the bill days before Sunday's Mother's Day.
"More work, less pay for working mom. No way to say happy Mother's Day," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
Democrats predicted that the bill, like a number of similar ones in recent years, would not become law.
"Everybody on this floor knows that," said Representative Steny Hoyer, the second-ranking Democrat in the House. "But we are wasting our time on it."
"We ought to be working on creating jobs and restoring fiscal discipline," Hoyer said. "Not a partisan rollback of workers' rights, but a bipartisan compromise to help put more Americans to work."
(Reporting by Thomas Ferraro; Editing by Eric Beech)