Key Dems confident card-check will pass

A key Senate negotiator trying to advance a contentious union-organizing bill said a modified version could pass the upper chamber this year, despite his reservations with the changes.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) is one of a half-dozen senators trying to craft a compromise on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which if passed would make union organizing much easier. The labor movement considers the measure one of its top legislative priorities this Congress, but business associations have mounted an all-out lobbying offensive against the bill.

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In an interview with The Hill, Brown said he’s not happy with some of the changes, but that he’s working hard to lobby his Democratic colleagues — and even a few Republicans — to accept the compromise. He said he is not sure if the new version would have the 60 Senate votes necessary to beat back a filibuster.

“I don’t know,” Brown said. “It’s not clear to me that we have everybody’s vote yet.”

But Brown expressed confidence that Congress will at some point move the union bill — if not this year, then next — saying senators have made progress on negotiating a new version of the bill.

“I think this is going to happen at some point,” Brown said. “There is a decent chance it will happen this year.”

The Democrats’ lead negotiator, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), has been more hopeful than Brown of late on the bill’s chances. In September, Harkin, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, told a labor rally that he worked out a deal on the bill in July. But he could not move it without Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who was too ill to vote at the time and in August succumbed to terminal brain cancer.

Now that Sen. Paul Kirk (D-Mass.) has taken the late Kennedy’s seat, Senate Democrats have 60 members in their conference and Harkin is sounding positive again about the bill.

“Hopefully we’re going to get the bill through sometime this fall, now that we hopefully have the 60 votes,” Harkin said on the “Bill Press Radio Show” Tuesday.

A spokesman for Kirk confirmed that the newly appointed senator plans to co-sponsor the pro-union bill and would vote for it on the Senate floor.

Even with Kirk’s support, passage has a tough road ahead. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) has come out against the bill and other centrist Democrats have distanced themselves from the legislation. Add in the uncertainty over Sen. Robert Byrd’s (D-W.Va.) health and the bill’s chances of becoming law remain up in the air.

Democrats like Brown have tried to shore up support for the bill by working out a compromise. Brown said each of the six negotiators has been assigned senators to check up on to see if they will vote for the bill.

“The six of us are talking to different people. The most difficult of the 60 votes have not been assigned to me,” Brown said.

Considering some Democrats’ wavering in supporting the bill, Republican votes may be needed. Brown said he has talked to his Ohioan colleague, Sen. George Voinovich (R), a centrist who is retiring after the 2010 election, about supporting the legislation. Voinovich voted against advancing the card-check bill in the 110th Congress and has vowed to do the same if it comes up again.


“I think he’s not likely, but we keep trying,” Brown said.

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Under discussion on a compromise is removing a provision that would allow workers to bypass secret-ballot elections when forming unions if a majority sign authorization cards stating their intention to organize. The card-check provision would eliminate management’s right to call for a secret-ballot election, which businesses have lobbied against heavily.

“It has been pretty clear that it is very hard with card-check to get 60 votes,” Brown said. The senator, however, said he was “not thrilled” with changes made to the legislation.

“I liked the bill the way it was. I know much of business is going to hate any bill,” Brown said.

Brown said much of the discussions are through informal talks on the Senate floor and the negotiators have not had a formal meeting since before the August recess.