By John Crawley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The House of Representatives, stepping into a labor dispute that has become a political issue, approved legislation on Thursday to limit enforcement powers of a federal labor board in its complaint against Boeing Co.
The Republican-sponsored measure targeting the National Labor Relations Board is unlikely to be enacted due to opposition in the Democratic-led Senate, which is not expected to bring any similar measure up for a vote.
The labor relations panel has sued Boeing, saying the aircraft manufacturer's decision to move assembly jobs for its 787 Dreamliner to non-union South Carolina was meant to retaliate against members of the International Association of Machinists, or IAM, for a previous strike at its plant in Everett, Washington.
The House-passed legislation would prohibit the board from ordering companies to close a factory or relocate or transfer jobs under any circumstances -- a possible outcome if Boeing were to lose the labor case.
Boeing said its decision was based on sound business practices and it had not violated any laws in opening the $750 million South Carolina plant in June that will employ 1,000 people.
"We have said consistently that the complaint is groundless and legally unsupportable," Boeing spokesman Tim Neale said. "We continue to believe the issue would be best addressed by the NLRB withdrawing its complaint."
Boeing did not endorse the House bill.
The Boeing issue has energized Democratic labor constituencies as well as business interests that overwhelmingly support Republican efforts to curb regulations they say hurt job creation with unemployment at 9.1 percent.
It also has elevated partisan debate over collective bargaining rights, corporate outsourcing and the ability of companies to hire non-union workers whenever and wherever they want.
Republican presidential candidates are using the Boeing case as a wedge issue against President Barack Obama and other Democrats. The bill was cleared by House leaders for action the same week Republican candidates were debating in South Carolina.
"American companies are free to create jobs in China but they are not free to create jobs in South Carolina," House Speaker John Boehner told the Economic Club of Washington on Thursday. "The current regulatory burdens in Washington far exceed the government's mandate."
Boehner said House committees under his leadership had identified "dozens of job-crushing regulations" and urged the Senate to address their initiatives.
"The Senate has to act," Boehner said.
Democrats say the Republican effort is an attack on workers' rights.
"The National Labor Relations Board exists to ensure that companies do not discriminate against workers who exercise their rights under federal law," said Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.
The panel is investigating the NLRB's prosecution of Boeing that stemmed from an IAM complaint, a probe Democrats have said is inappropriate with judicial proceedings under way.
The IAM condemned passage of the bill in the House as a political statement.
"This bill doesn't create or preserve a single job," said spokeswoman Connie Kelliher. "Its sole purpose is to shield Boeing and other corporations from accountability for labor law violations."
(Additional reporting by Kyle Peterson; Editing by Peter Cooney)