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Contract-wage waiver lifted


WASHINGTON -- Amid pressure from members of both parties, President Bush agreed yesterday to lift an order that had allowed federal contractors on Hurricane Katrina reconstruction projects to pay workers less than the locally "prevailing wage."

His decision elated Democrats, labor unions and moderate House Republicans from districts where organized labor is active. The reinstatement of the wage rules will take effect Nov. 8.

The prevailing wage is usually close to the wage level set in local union contracts. Critics had said that waiving the prevailing wage requirement had allowed employers to pay "poverty wages."

"It was fundamentally wrong for the Bush administration to hit workers when they were down by slashing wages, exacerbating the very poverty that the hurricanes exposed," said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO.

The White House did not announce the action. Instead, Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff, revealed Bush's decision to several House Republicans during a meeting, and the lawmakers happily disclosed the news afterward on Capitol Hill.

As the devastation caused by Katrina became clear, on Sept. 8 Bush suspended the wage standards laid out in the Davis-Bacon Act for areas of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. Some allies praised the move, saying the law, if not suspended, would have inflated costs and presented roadblocks to rebuilding. Some conservatives have long sought to repeal the wage standard.

But others resisted the move. Led by Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, an effort was building in the House for an early November vote on reinstating the wage standard.

Bush's initial action had also posed problems for House Republicans. Thirty-seven of them objected to Bush in writing and spoke to Republican Party Chairman Ken Mehlman and to Karl Rove, White House deputy chief of staff.

Three who signed the letter to Bush - Republican Reps. Peter T. King of New York, Frank A. LoBiondo of New Jersey and Steven C. LaTourette of Ohio - went to the White House yesterday and received the news of Bush's decision from Card.

Edwin Chen is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

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