COLUMBUS, Ohio — President Bush on Thursday pressed for changes in labor laws so that workers can choose time off instead of overtime pay, a notion that has met stiff resistance in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Meanwhile, his opponent in the presidential race, Sen. John Kerry, criticized Bush's performance in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks and told journalists that America remains a nation divided along racial and economic lines.
Campaigning in the swing state of Ohio, a state that has lost tens of thousands of jobs since Bush took office, the president acknowledged the economic woes and highlighted his determination to work for an improved economy in a second term.
“We’ve been through a lot. Ohio’s been through a lot,” he said.
Before Bush spoke, the White House issued a two-page memorandum on proposed labor law changes so that workers can choose time off instead of overtime pay as compensation for extra work and so that workers can have the option of working more hours in one week and fewer the next — proposals often referred to as comp time and flex time.
Unions are critical
The AFL-CIO and other opponents say the proposals will hurt workers financially while savings companies billions on overtime pay.
Bush only mentioned the proposals once, in response to a question from the audience at the end of his appearance. The president said the government should allow employers to say to employees that they can spend more time with their families.
“Government should be standing side by side with people,” the president said to applause.
Labor unions say companies don’t need a change in federal law to schedule workers to work a late shift or allow them to come in late one day to accommodate family needs.
Bush favors the business community argument that the workplace has been transformed because of two-parent working families and that family time is precious.
In June, House Republican leaders yanked an overtime pay bill after failing to find enough votes for passage, a rare win for labor unions in the GOP-controlled Congress. The pullback followed a massive lobbying effort by organized labor that targeted moderate House Republicans.
Measure provides for a choice
The measure would let hourly workers who log more than 40 hours in a week choose between overtime pay or compensatory time off at a later date. Private companies are barred under the 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act from offering comp time as an option to millions of workers covered by the law.
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In Washington, Kerry spoke to minority journalists at their quadrennial Unity convention. He was "warmly accepted throughout his speech and he drew big applause with his comments about the lack of minority journalists and ownership of television stations and newspapers," MSNBC.com's Darrell Bowling reported. "He says when he's president he would make sure to bring in an FCC chairman who would fight to increase minority ownership of broadcast outlets."
On another topic, Kerry said he would have reacted much more quickly than President Bush did on Sept. 11, 2001, when he learned of terrorist attacks.
The president spent seven minutes reading to Florida elementary school children after learning that hijacked planes had been flown into the World Trade Center in New York.
“Had I been reading to children and had my top aide whisper in my ear that America is under attack, I would have told those kids very nicely and politely that the president of the United States has something that he needs to attend to,” Kerry said.
Ridiculing Bush's claims
Kerry also ridiculed President Bush’s claim that the nation has “turned a corner” in an era marked by terrorism and economic recession.
“Just saying that you’ve turned a corner doesn’t make it so. Just like saying there are weapons of mass destruction (in Iraq) doesn’t make it so. Just like saying you can fight a war on the cheap doesn’t make it so. Just like saying ’mission accomplished’ doesn’t make it so,” Kerry said.
“The last president who used that slogan, who told us that prosperity was just around the corner, was Herbert Hoover during the Great Depression,” he said.
Kerry's remarks came as a new Quinnipiac University poll showed him reclaiming a healthy lead over President Bush in Democratic-leaning New Jersey.
The poll, taken after the Democratic National Convention, found Kerry with the backing of 49 percent, Bush with 36 percent and independent Ralph Nader with 6 percent.
In a late June Quinnipiac poll, Kerry had 46 percent, Bush 40 percent and Nader 7 percent.
Democrat Al Gore won the state by 15.8 percentage points in 2000.
“This is the kind of lead you expect a Democratic candidate to have in Democratic New Jersey,” said Clay Richards, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.