GOP Zeros in on Lincoln and Bennet on EFCA

Posted June 15, 2009 at 6:09pm

Two Democratic Senators, both of whom would probably love to see a vote on the Employee Free Choice Act put off until after their 2010 re-elections, are taking different tacks when it comes to the controversial bill that is the No. 1 legislative priority for organized labor.

And yet both are taking flak for what some political insiders say are their efforts to dodge the issue because they represent states where business interests are notably anti-union.

Appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (Colo.) remains undecided on the bill that conservatives derisively refer to as “card check.— In a state with a powerful tourism industry that could be threatened by EFCA, Bennet continues to meet with labor and business leaders and has said that he’s waiting to see what sort of compromise bill Democrats can work out before he makes a decision one way or the other.

Meanwhile, Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.) said in April that she can’t support the EFCA bill in its current form. It was a decision that was likely cheered by executives at Wal-Mart, the powerful and outspoken foe of EFCA that is based in Arkansas. But Lincoln has also indicated that she is open to considering alternatives that will be less divisive for business and labor.

As expected, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which has Colorado and Arkansas on its target list in 2010, has criticized both approaches to the bill. NRSC spokeswoman Amber Wilkerson said the committee intends to make EFCA a major issue when it comes to their communication strategies in Colorado and Arkansas.

“Lincoln says she rejects the bill in its current form but yet can’t explain what has changed from the same legislation that she once co-sponsored,— Wilkerson said. “And Bennet still hasn’t explained to his constituents whether he will pander to the big union bosses in Washington in order to appease the left wing of his party or whether he will reject this job-killing legislation.—

Still, while Republicans are hopeful they will be able to target the two Democrats, they have yet to find top-tier challengers to run against either Lincoln or Bennet next year. There has been talk that Bennet could face a possible primary, but the chances that a credible challenger will emerge are diminishing by the day.

For Bennet, the question is how much longer can he remain on the fence before his lack of a position does him more harm than good. As Republicans try to paint him as indecisive, some Democrats in Colorado are wondering when it becomes less politically dangerous to simply pick a side.

“On the one side, you’ll hear his supporters argue the issue is still not ripe, there could be a compromise. He gets hurt either way [if he comes out with an opinion] so he should just hold off,— Colorado pollster Floyd Ciruli said.

However, with Bennet still working to introduce himself to Colorado voters after his appointment in early January, some observers on the Democratic side are increasingly nervous that the EFCA issue is going to end up being Bennet’s defining issue, Ciruli said. And Bennet’s handlers certainly don’t want indecision to be his most notable trait.

“Ultimately, Michael will make the decision that he thinks will be in the best interest of Colorado,— said Craig Hughes, Bennet’s campaign manager.

State labor groups haven’t seemed to turn on Bennet yet.

“We’re confident in the end he will support working families in Colorado,— said Mike Cerbo, executive director of the Colorado American Federation of Labor Congress of Industrial Organizations.

“In the end, we’re going to be supporting those Senators and Representatives who are supporting working families,— Cerbo added. “We’re confident he will get the message loud and clear.—

Meanwhile Lincoln, along with a slew of other Senators who have come out against EFCA, became the target last week of a new online campaign by the Service Employees International Union. The Web ads hit the Senators for siding “with the institutions that created the current economic malaise.—

Alan Hughes, president of the Arkansas AFL-CIO, said there’s still hope that Lincoln will come around and support EFCA, but right now labor groups are waiting to hear from Lincoln to see what kind of compromise she might be willing to support.

“She said, I don’t like it in the form it’s in now,’ and everybody reads between the lines, and I think there’s that window of opportunity there that Sen. Lincoln still wants to see something done,— Hughes said.

“I hope it’s not a different way of stalling,— he added. “If it is, [supporters of EFCA] will be highly disappointed and they will be aggressive in their thinking of what they are going to do next. … [But] right now we’re thinking she’s sincere.—

While unions continue to hold out hope that some version of EFCA will hit the floor this year, some lobbyists and others inside the Beltway believe Democrats may be able to push off card check until 2011, saving Senators like Bennet and Lincoln from the politically risky vote before next year’s elections.

But Republicans point out that the road ahead does not get any easier when it comes to the politics of EFCA. Democratic Sens. Jim Webb (Va.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Jon Tester (Mont.) are all up for re-election in 2012, and the vote could be politically risky for them as well.