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The Rose Garden: Card Check Promises a Gut Check in 2010

President Barack Obama owes a lot to the unions. It’s no secret that labor spent massively on his behalf during the presidential election last year and directed a tsunami of voters to the polls. Union foot soldiers helped make the difference for him in places like Ohio and other hard-hat-rich swing states. While the president has already moved on several union-friendly initiatives, time is running out on what may be a one-time opportunity to pass a cherished labor goal, the Employee Free Choice Act.

But the president faces a conundrum. To get EFCA passed, he must lean on some of the same politically imperiled moderate Democratic Senators he’s pressuring now to approve a health care overhaul — and whose votes may be needed for climate change legislation as well.

By soliciting their support for EFCA, he will expose himself and them to an all-hands-on-deck campaign — teeming with negative ads — from the business community.

Little could be closer to the hearts of union leaders than the “card check” bill, which labor leaders view as an act of simple justice that would also grow their membership by making it easier unionize workplaces. With a Democratic president and Democrats in control of both the House and the Senate, union operatives want a vote ASAP, before the political season heats up. The game is in the Senate, where EFCA backers are probably just a few votes short of the 60 they need to overcome a filibuster.

Top union officials say they believe Senate leaders are willing to move on card check early next year, after Congress acts on the health bill and a jobs bill. They expect Obama to help make the fight.

“Obviously it’s a priority for us,” one veteran union operative said. “We’re going to say to the White House, ‘Remember when you said you would do EFCA when health care is done? Well, now health care is done.’”

Obama’s commitment to the legislation was spelled out in an appearance before the AFL-CIO in Philadelphia on April 2, 2008, when he was still slugging it out with then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“If a majority of workers want a union, they should get a union, it’s that simple,” Obama said. “Let’s stand up to the business lobby that’s been getting their friends in Washington to block card check. I’ve fought to pass the Employee Free Choice Act in the Senate. And I will make it the law of the land when I’m president of the United States of America.”

Labor officials have been in intensive discussions with Senate Democratic leaders about the issue. According to one labor source, union presidents will huddle with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Wednesday, and card check, along with the health care bill now on the Senate floor, will be on the agenda.

Democratic aides seem unsure of the timing for the bill, despite the expectations of labor sources.

There will be an “awful busy start to next year,” a senior Democratic leadership aide said. The unions “have a long list of ideas that they want,” he said.

Reid’s office was not willing to publicly commit to a date. “The Employee Free Choice Act remains a top priority for Senator Reid, but he has not scheduled any specific time to begin debating the bill,” a Reid spokesman said.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a liberal who is close to the unions, said he thought a measure could get through early in the year, asserting that Democrats need “only one or two votes” to get to 60.

One of those votes is Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), a moderate facing a tough battle for re-election. Obama must have her support to pass health overhaul — a difficult vote for her — and he will be stretching her even further politically by asking her to support card check.

Business lobbyists will focus on her and others they may be able to pick off, and they plan to play hardball.

“We will take no prisoners when it comes to lobbying the Senators we need to lobby, and they know who they are,” said Randel Johnson, chief labor lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “The business community will go to the mat on the Employee Free Choice Act whenever it is scheduled,” he said.

Business officials believe they have a wider target than the “one or two” votes seen by Brown. Included along with Lincoln on the list are Democratic Sens. Mary Landrieu (La.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.).

White House officials declined to comment.

“The expectation is that the White House will support this,” one top union lobbyist said.

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