President Barack Obama is preparing to do what the U.S. economic recovery has been slow to accomplish: raise the wages of millions of Americans.

His administration is drafting new rules on who qualifies for overtime compensation, forcing more businesses to pay time- and-a-half after 40 hours of work. Many employees now earning as little as $23,660 a year -- below the federal poverty line for a family of four -- aren’t entitled to overtime pay because they are considered managers.

While Republicans in Congress have blocked proposals to raise the minimum wage, Obama can change the overtime rules through executive authority. Some officials at the Department of Labor are urging the president to lift the threshold as high as $51,000 before someone could be called an executive exempt from overtime. A group of 26 Democratic senators has asked him to push it even higher, to $56,680.

“This is absolutely one of the best practical ways to give people the on-ramp to the middle class,” said one of the lawmakers, Sherrod Brown of Ohio. “When you strip people of their overtime pay, which is what’s happened over the years, they really don’t have a chance to get ahead: They’re working harder and harder and not seeing real pay increases.”

Opponents argue that pushing the level too high could force fast-food restaurants, retailers and other enterprises to cut employment or even go out of business.

Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate Labor Committee, has condemned Obama’s anticipated move as part of an economic strategy seemingly “engineered to make it as unappealing as possible to be an employer creating jobs in this country.”