Specter gets ready to flip back on union bill

Surprise: The Pennsylvania Republican-turned-Democrat says he's prepared to find a deal to support legislation to make it easier for workers to join unions.

Published May 14, 2009 8:26PM (EDT)

The Senate appears to be engaging in an elaborate operation to help Arlen Specter save face before he folds and votes with his, ahem, fellow Democrats on one of labor's top legislative priorities.

Labor is pushing hard for Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would let workers join unions by signing cards, instead of holding secret-ballot elections. Whether Senate Democrats can find 60 votes needed to keep the GOP from filibustering it has been touch-and-go all year, but when Specter came out against it in March, that seemed to doom the bill. Since the Pennsylvanian had supported the bill two years ago, his main objection to it this time around appeared to be that he had to win a Republican primary against conservative Pat Toomey to keep his job. The right wing of the GOP, in particular, hates the bill, which would probably help slow -- or even reverse -- a long trend of declining union membership, by making it easier to organize workplaces.

Suddenly, though, the whole calculus has changed. Specter said when he switched parties that he would still oppose the legislation "in its current form." But just as realpolitik dictated that he oppose the bill as a Republican, he probably has no choice but to support it as a Democrat, especially if his two opponents in the party's primary -- both of whom have been Democrats since before April -- stay in the race.

All of that may explain why Specter suddenly acknowledged today that he's feeling a lot better about the legislation. He's been in talks with Democrats Tom Harkin of Iowa and Dianne Feinstein of California about how to change the proposal a bit to get him on board. Chances are, he won't drive a very hard bargain; one union official says labor will probably go along with minor tweaks as long as the "core principles" of the bill are preserved. Specter will be able to point to some cosmetic changes to explain why he's going back to supporting legislation he's supported in the past, and that will be that.

And lo and behold, just in the nick of time, President Obama agreed today that some compromise could probably work, as well, and reiterated his support for the bill. Asked about the legislation by an American Federation of Teachers member at an Albuquerque, N.M., town hall, Obama said things were moving along. "I think there may be areas of compromise to get this bill done," he said. "What I think we have to do is to find ways in which the core idea... is preserved, which is how do we make it easier for people who want to form a union to at least get a vote and have an even playing field."

Specter isn't the only moderate Democrat facing an election next year, of course; people like Blanche Lincoln, of Arkansas and Evan Bayh of Indiana may not be on board with whatever compromise gets hatched. But if Specter does eventually flip back to supporting the bill, you'll probably be able to look back to today as the moment you saw it coming.

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

MORE FROM Mike Madden

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Arlen Specter D-pa. Barack Obama Unemployment