Melancon tries to navigate business and labor interests

Facing intense pressure from local business groups, Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) is seeking to amend the controversial card-check bill backed by unions.

 Melancon has emerged as a possible challenger to Sen. David VitterDavid VitterOvernight Energy: Trump outlines 'America First' energy plan in North Dakota Paul blocks chemical safety bill in Senate House Republican pushes bill to 'curb regulatory overreach' MORE (R-La.), though he has yet to announce a run. Backing the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), also known as card-check, could make his candidacy tougher.

Vitter, like most Republicans, firmly opposes the legislation, and business groups are pressuring Melancon to back off.

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But if he does, he could lose support from unions in a Democratic primary. Businessman Jim Bernhard is also mulling a challenge against Vitter.

In turn, Melancon, a co-sponsor of EFCA, is seeking to change the bill. An aide to Melancon said the lawmaker is working on a “bipartisan solution” that would bring labor and business together.

Melancon is one of an increasing number of politicians facing questions about how to position themselves on EFCA. Sometimes this positioning depends on their ambitions. It’s easier to support or oppose the union-backed bill in a gerrymandered House district; it can be tougher for a House member thinking of running for the Senate.

Several members of the House and Senate have already shifted their positions on the legislation out of concern for 2010.

Melancon is an EFCA co-sponsor, but said he was working on making changes to the bill after being asked by local business leaders last week to drop his sponsorship.

Attendees said the congressman defended his position at a meeting in his congressional district hosted by the St. Mary Industrial Group, but added he was working to amend the bill.

“His deal is ‘I am on this bill to make it better, trying to make a bad bill better,’ ” said Bob Miller, president of the St. Mary Industrial Group. “I doubt it seriously if anyone in the room believed it.”

“He said he did have serious reservations about certain provisions in the bill,” said Allen Sanders, vice president of the St. Mary Chamber of Commerce. “What I got from him was that he would vote against it if those items were not addressed.”

Melancon said he was not happy with a provision in the bill that would eliminate the right of employers to demand a secret-ballot election to form a union, Sanders said. Under the legislation, an employer could not make that request if a majority of workers check boxes on petition cards to form a union.

Melancon’s meeting with local business leaders was first reported by The Franklin Banner-Tribune in Louisiana.

An aide to Melancon said the Blue Dog Democrat stuck by the bill at the business leader meeting and did not distance himself from it.

“To clarify what he said, Congressman Melancon understands many of the concerns expressed by the business owners at the meeting,” said Robin Winchell, a spokeswoman for Melancon.

“He is interested in bringing both sides together to work out their differences. As a co-sponsor, he is working on a bipartisan solution that will address some of these concerns, while still protecting employees’ rights.”

Melancon is far from the only lawmaker struggling to position himself on card-check.

Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.), who has mulled a run for the Senate, is not co-sponsoring the bill this Congress, though he did in the last legislative session.

In Pennsylvania, Sen. Arlen Specter (D) announced his opposition to EFCA before switching parties to avoid a nasty Republican primary challenge. He’s now working with other senators on an alternative.

Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), up for reelection in 2010, has said she is against the bill in its current form but would consider alternatives.

Both Lincoln and Specter voted for cloture on the bill the last time it came up for a vote in the Senate, in June 2007.

Melancon voted for EFCA in 2007 when it was approved by the House.

“He has been very supportive of the value of workers and what they contribute to the economy and believes they should have a fair playing field,” said Julie Cherry, secretary-treasurer of the Louisiana AFL-CIO. “We do consider him an ally.”

But Republicans are ready to attack him over EFCA if he challenges Vitter.

“If Charlie Melancon is serious about running for the U.S. Senate, he needs to stop the Washington doublespeak and fully renounce the job-killing card-check legislation, which he’s currently co-sponsoring,” Amber Wilkerson, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement issued following local press reports of Melancon’s EFCA concerns.

If he no longer co-sponsors the bill, Melancon could lose support from labor. Cherry said the state AFL-CIO, which has about 100,000 members, will consider a candidate’s stance on EFCA when making endorsement decisions.

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“For us, his support of the Employee Free Choice Act will help him in the Senate race. For us, it’s positive,” Cherry said.

As a Democrat running in a statewide election in Louisiana, Melancon will have a tough race ahead if he chooses to run. A solid red state, the Bayou State went to Sen. John McCainJohn McCainTrump: Illegal immigrants treated better than veterans Trump should apologize to heroic POWs McCain urges sports leagues to return 'paid patriotism' money MORE (R-Ariz.) by 19 points over President Obama in last year’s election for the White House.

Miller of the St. Mary Industrial Group said Melancon’s district is unlike the rest of the state politically, too.

“Compared to the north of the state, we are liberals,” Miller said. “He’s got a long way to go to win some support.”