Conservatives Declare Victory on Union Bill After Specter Switch

Created: March 24, 2009 18:11 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) (WDCpix) Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) (WDCpix)

While a small group of conservative activists and journalists sat down for lunch at the University Club in downtown Washington, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform got a phone call from Sen. Arlen Specter’s (R-Penn.) chief of staff, Scott Hoeflich. Specter—the moderate Republican who had once co-sponsored the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for labor unions to organize—had changed his mind. Norquist led off his short speech with the news.

Image by: Matt Mahurin Image by: Matt Mahurin

“He will be announcing today,” Norquist said, “this afternoon, that he will be voting against cloture and against card check.”

The room erupted with applause. James Sherk, who had been working against EFCA at the conservative Heritage Foundation, pumped his fist. With a maximum of 59 Democrats in support of the bill—assuming Al Franken is seated in Minnesota and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) is well enough to cast a vote—EFCA needed one Republican. Specter was the only Republican senator to support a similar measure in 2007.

“We may have dodged a bullet here,” said Norquist. “If this was 55 [Democrats], maybe the business community would never have woken up before the next election. But cleverly, we brought the Democrats so close that they thought they had us by the neck.”

The Employee Free Choice Act has been the target of one of the most intense lobbying campaigns in recent political history, an effort that has moved from the airwaves of battleground states into meetings where small labor and business groups pleaded for the swing voter, Specter, to take their side. On Tuesday, anti-EFCA activists all but declared victory, pronouncing the current bill “dead’ in the Senate. While some worries remain over Specter’s statement against the bill, and some disagreements are heating up over the strategy to block more labor reforms, there is a sense that the campaign against EFCA has made passage of the current version of the bill impossible.

“Ding, dong, the bill is dead,” said Matthew Vadum, a senior editor of the Capital Research Center, the conservative think tank that organized the conference. During a break, Vadum rushed to post the news at CRC’s web site: “Specter Kills Card Check.”

Specter’s EFCA switch will have an immediate impact on his re-election prospects. Ever since Specter co-sponsored EFCA in 2007, conservatives have threatened challenging him in the June 2010 Republican primary. Victory in that primary had looked more distant since more than 100,000 Republicans, most of them longtime supporters of Specter from the suburbs of Philadelphia, quit the party in the run-up to last year’s elections. The senator took another hit when Pat Toomey, the Club for Growth president who came within 17,000 votes of beating Specter in the 2004 primary, strongly suggested that he would enter this race.

For weeks, Specter had been approached by unions, including the AFL-CIO and the SEIU, that hinted at supporting him if he voted for EFCA—especially if Specter left the GOP and became an independent or a Democrat. But in his statement, asked to “end the rumor mill that I have made some deal for my political advantage.”

“This was a blunder on the part of the unions,” said Barbara Comstock, a Republican lawyer who is now running for the House of Delegates in Virginia. Comstock suggested that “thuggish” union behavior had backfired by making a pro-EFCA vote look like political opportunity, instead of an act of bi-partisan courage. “They really did their pay-to-play, [Blagojevich]-type politics.”

“Specter enjoys being the center of attention,” said Ernest Istook, a former congressman from Oklahoma who now chairs Save Our Secret Ballot, a group that’s trying to pass state ballot initiatives pre-empting any labor reform that would allow unions to form without secret ballot elections. He was less charitable about Specter’s decision. “There has probably been more money spent to influence his vote on this issue than on any other vote, from any other senator, at any other time. He wants to continue enjoying the attention and the fundraising opportunity.”

Istook told fellow anti-EFCA activists that Specter’s decision was a reason for “joy.” Elaine Chao, who served as George W. Bush’s Secretary of Labor for two terms, had a more tentative reaction. “It’s very positive,” said Chao, “but so long as this continues to foment, and third way options continue to come up, this is not dead. This is the number one issue of organized labor.” Chao pointed to a proposal from Costco, Starbucks, and Whole Foods, which was officially announced today by former Clinton White House Counsel Lanny Davis, to demonstrate that the issue isn’t dead.

Greg Mourad, the legislative director of National Rights at Work, worried about the timing of Specter’s decision so close to the announcement of the “third way” proposed by Davis. “The people I’m talking to are saying, ‘Why now?’” said Mourad. Thumbing his Blackberry and reading Specter’s statement, he worried that Specter only said that “this is the wrong time for this bill, not that he opposes in principle.”

Business groups loudly opposed the Davis proposal as soon as word of it leaked over the weekend. Norquist said that he’d met with business leaders who wanted conservatives to boycott Starbucks, Costco, and Whole Foods to show solidarity and nip the proposal in the bud. Now that Specter has “given us 41 votes,” said Norquist, there was no reason for any proposal to get a hearing.

“There’s nothing in this bill worth having,” said Norquist. “Conceding that anything in the bill is harmless is a mistake. None of it is any good.”

Conservatives pointed out that Specter’s decision to cross the unions had almost certainly ended any chance that they would support him, even if he voiced support for some sort of compromise bill. During the final panel of the CRC conference, Mourad sparred with Istook over the wisdom of keeping up anti-EFCA ballot fights in the states.

“We should oppose anything that gives Democrats cover to support this,” Mourad said. “We don’t want sow confusion and suggest that states can actually pre-empt EFCA, if some kind of bill does come up.”

Norquist, Mourad, and several other activists looked ahead—if there were 41 votes locked in against EFCA, it would help Republicans to hold a vote and put Democrats on the record before the 2010 elections.

“This is not a time to hibernate,” said Istook, “to go back to sleep, and to say we’ll deal with it in 2011 after the next elections. We must be dedicated to remain active, and to keep this issue alive.”