Harkin: Kennedy’s illness stalled card-check

“As of July — I can tell you this openly and I know the press is all here — but we had worked out a pretty good agreement. Labor was at the table,” Harkin told a crowd of activists organized by American Rights at Work, a labor advocacy group. The activists swarmed Capitol Hill on Thursday to lobby for the bill.

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Harkin said prominent labor leaders were on board with the deal, including AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

“That’s when we needed 60 votes and that’s when I called to get Sen. Kennedy down, because we needed him for three days. That’s when Dr. Horowitz told me that he couldn’t make it,” Harkin said.

Lawrence Horowitz was Kennedy’s longtime doctor and a former chief of staff to the senator, who died in August after a more than yearlong battle against brain cancer.

It is unclear what the deal would have included, and Harkin declined to provide details after his remarks.

“I will not say, because it was closely held, it never leaked out and it still hasn’t,” Harkin said. “I took it off the front-burner and put it on the back-burner, so it is still on warm, OK?”

Harkin has been the Senate Democrats’ lead negotiator on the card-check bill.

A union spokeswoman would not comment on the deal Harkin mentioned.

“We have the utmost faith in and respect for Sen. Harkin’s ability to shepherd major labor law reform this year. While we are not going to comment on the specifics of any discussions or negotiations, the fact is that support for labor law reform is strong — not just among working families, but in the halls of Congress,” said Christy Setzer, a spokeswoman for SEIU.

A spokeswoman for the AFL-CIO declined to comment for this article.

Aides to Harkin previously have said every provision of the bill is up for discussion, and that a measure that would allow workers to organize by signing off on authorization cards could be dropped. That gives the card-check bill its name.

The bill would eliminate the right of employers to demand that unions hold a secret-ballot election to organize a union.

Business associations have lobbied heavily against the bill, titled the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), and that provision in particular. They charge it would lead to union intimidation of workers and more strikes that could hurt revenue. Unions argue the present system favors employers.

Business advocates questioned whether Harkin’s whip count was accurate.

“Sen. Harkin’s crystal ball on EFCA seems to malfunction at times,” said Glenn Spencer, the executive director for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Workforce Freedom Initiative, which opposes the bill. “The numbers don’t add up. There aren’t 60 votes for this.”

Harkin, who took over chairmanship of the Senate Health, Labor, Education and Pensions Committee after Kennedy’s death, has hinted several times that the legislation soon will win a Senate vote.

The new chairman has vowed to pass the bill and has been leading the charge for it since Kennedy asked him to take it on in early January this year.

Centrist Democrats, however, have distanced themselves or outright opposed the legislation. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who is up for reelection in 2010, has come out against the bill.

“They are not going to pick off any Republicans. This is a matter of zero appetite in the Democratic caucus to take up this bill,” Spencer said.

Harkin’s statement suggests he might have thought he had the votes after Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) was seated in July. That briefly gave Democrats 60 votes in the Senate.

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But even before Kennedy died, Democratic leaders could not count on all 60 votes. Kennedy’s brain cancer kept him away from Washington most of the year, and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has also suffered from ill health.

Harkin said he is hopeful the Massachusetts State Legislature will change state law to appoint a temporary successor to Kennedy.

“Hopefully, we will have someone from Massachusetts soon,” he said.

He predicted the bill would pass this session of Congress and perhaps before Christmas this year if the Bay State sends Kennedy’s replacement before then.

Once Kennedy’s successor is appointed and Byrd is healthy enough to vote, Harkin said he would revisit his agreement on EFCA and try to get the bill to the Senate floor.

“I will then go back to the same group again and with labor … and try to get this thing put back together,” Harkin said.