By Kevin Bogardus - 09/15/09 09:58 PM EDT
Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) on Tuesday told the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh that he has been working hard “for hours” on a deal with other key senators, such as Sens. Tom HarkinTom HarkinDo candidates care about our health or just how much it costs? The Hill's 12:30 Report Mark Mellman: Parsing the primary processes MORE (D-Iowa) and Charles SchumerCharles SchumerRyan goes all-in on Puerto Rico Cruz's dad: Trump 'would be worse than Hillary Clinton' With Ryan’s blessing, lawmakers press ahead with tax reform talks MORE (D-N.Y.), as well as labor leaders, on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA).
The bill is one of the labor movement’s most important legislative priorities this Congress, one they believe is necessary to protect workers’ rights. Specter’s prediction was greeted by a prolonged standing ovation from the convention’s attendees, members of the nation’s largest union federation.
Specter cited three principles pushed by unions for labor law reform that he agrees with: no delays in union certification, tough penalties for labor law violations and binding arbitration for management and workers to reach union contracts more quickly.
What was unsaid in the senator’s speech was whether a core provision in the bill was part of the deal.
Much of the attention has focused on the “card-check” provision, which would allow workers to bypass secret-ballot elections and instead organize by getting a majority to sign off on authorization cards.
Attacked relentlessly by business associations as undemocratic, lawmakers have been discussing removing the measure in order to win more support from centrist Democrats.
In a Senate floor speech earlier this year, Specter, then a Republican, said he would not support advancing the bill with the card-check provision.
Republicans on Tuesday criticized Specter, now a Democrat, for changing his position.
“Sen. Specter has once again changed his position on the union card-check bill. I guess that's just the price you have to pay to get President Obama to come in and have a fundraiser,” said former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) on a conference call with reporters organized by the Republican National Committee. “He has done a hard left turn in order to try to get into the good graces of this president.”
Specter and Obama attended a fundraiser for Specter’s campaign on Tuesday in Philadelphia.
Since switching parties earlier this year, Specter has been deep in talks with other senators to work out a compromise on the legislation. Running for reelection in 2010, Specter is facing a primary challenge from Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), and the two are competing for the AFL-CIO and other union endorsements, which could sway the race in labor-heavy Pennsylvania. Specter, as a Republican, was endorsed by the state chapter of the AFL-CIO in 2004 and won against then-Rep. Joe Hoeffel (D-Pa.) in his Senate reelection bid.
But despite Specter’s confidence, a Senate vote on the bill is still likely to be a very close one.
Last week, Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, said he had an agreement worked out with labor leaders in July of this year but could not muster enough votes to pass the bill due to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) being too ill to vote at the time.
As of now, Kennedy’s death leaves only 59 votes in the Senate’s Democratic Conference, not enough to beat back a filibuster. Add in the lengthy absences of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) due to illness and Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) opposing the bill as is, and the labor measure is still very much a heavy lift to move through the Senate.
“What matters is not whether the AFL-CIO has cut a new backroom deal on the bill; it is whether it can be sold to Senate moderates who are worried about saving jobs, especially their own,” said Steven Law, chief legal officer and general counsel at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the bill.
Several groups opposing the bill ran ads in Pittsburgh this week during the AFL-CIO convention. The Coalition for a Democratic Workplace paid for newspaper ads calling on Specter to oppose the bill, while the Associated Builders and Contractors paid for a billboard saying the legislation will cost jobs.
In his speech before the AFL-CIO, Specter reminded union members that he was often the only Republican to fight back against planned budget cuts for worker-safety programs by GOP administrations and that he early on called for tariffs to be imposed on Chinese-made tires, which the White House has since decided to do.
“I stood up and fought for labor’s interests and won those battles,” Specter said.
He also talked about his record voting to advance the labor bill when it came to the Senate floor in 2007, saying he was the only Republican to vote against a filibuster to take up the bill.
Specter finished his speech by asking for the union’s endorsement as he runs for reelection.
“I again thank for your help in the past, and I will do my utmost to merit your support in the future,” Specter said.
Michael O’Brien contributed to this article.