Did Specter's political problems doom card check?

Facing a primary challenge, the Pennsylvania senator says he won't vote for cloture for EFCA, a measure the GOP vehemently opposes.

Published March 24, 2009 7:20PM (EDT)

The Employee Free Choice Act, organized labor's biggest legislative priority this year, may be dead on arrival. Republicans hate the bill, and have promised a filibuster in the Senate, so for it to pass Democrats have to hold all their members -- no guarantee -- and pick up a couple votes from across the aisle.  Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., seemed the likeliest to flip and support cloture, as he voted in favor in 2007. This time around, however, he's voting against, and that decision probably means the legislation is doomed.

Specter, who confirmed his intentions Tuesday afternoon, had a host of poltical factors to consider regarding this vote. He's always been unpopular with conservatives, but his vote in favor of the stimulus package rekindled their anger, and pushed it to new heights. Now, he's likely to face a rematch in the Republican primary against former Rep. Pat Toomey, who came close to unseating him in 2004. Pro-EFCA labor groups like the AFL-CIO promised Specter that they'd support his reelection campaign if he'd vote for the bill, but that apparently was not enough to sway him.

That union backing could have been influential, and certainly it would have been very helpful in a general election, where it might have discouraged Democrats from mounting a serious challenge. But there were good reasons for Specter to decide against accepting it.

Pennsylvania doesn't allow candidates to run in a primary and then run as an Independent in the general, so if Specter did lose to Toomey, he couldn't have followed Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman's example and continued his fight. Plus, Pennsylvania holds a closed primary, meaning only registered Republicans can vote in it; that puts a moderate like Specter at a disadvantage against a more conservative candidate. He had reportedly made some effort towards opening the primary up, but his proposal wasn't greeted with much enthusiasm. That leaves him stuck with the Republican primary, where the AFL-CIO is really capable only of helping his political career into an early grave.

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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Arlen Specter D-pa.