WASHINGTON — Congress now becomes the battleground between business and unions as lawmakers weigh a so-called card check bill that would make it easier for workers to unionize.
The controversial Employee Free Choice Act - or card check bill - was introduced in the House of Representatives and the Senate on Tuesday, to the cheers of Democrats and unions led by the AFL-CIO, and to sharp criticism from Republicans and pro-business organizations led by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
But prospects for the bill look grim, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., conceded that he'll need Republican help to end debate and bring it to a vote. Reid's office said Wednesday that the majority leader doesn't expect to bring it up until later in the year.
The act, which passed the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate in June 2007, would end a long-standing practice of secret balloting for union elections that dates to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.
Under the bill, employees could unionize simply by collecting signatures from more than half the workers at a business. Under current rules, workers vote in secret in a federally supervised election to determine whether they want to unionize.
Democrats hail the bill as a way for workers to win better wages and benefits from employers. President Barack Obama backed the measure during last year's campaign and reiterated his support to union officials earlier this month.
Republicans and business groups see the bill as a threat to an already struggling economy.
"It's the most radical piece of legislation before Congress," Senate Republican Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Wednesday. "It will change this country. It's a job killer. I'm astonished Democrats would put it ahead of health care, jobs, and other issues."
The measure is so radical, some opponents say, that even George McGovern — the former South Dakota senator, 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, and a GOP poster boy for far-left liberalism — doesn't support it.
McGovern is featured in a television ad sponsored by EmployeeFreedom.org, which lists itself as a nonpartisan, nonprofit group dedicated to defeating the bill.
"It's hard to believe that any politician would agree to a law denying millions of employees the right to a private vote," McGovern says in the ad. "I've always been a champion of labor unions, but I fear that today's union leaders are turning their backs on democratic workplace elections. . . . Quite simply, this proposed law cannot be justified."
Union officials dismiss such talk as big business looking out for itself.
"Wealthy corporate interests don't want to give up power and they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars to lie about what the bill does," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in a statement.
In addition to media ads, business and union groups are stating their cases in person. They flooded Capitol Hill this week seeking support from lawmakers. So far, it appears that business has the upper hand.
Reid said he believes he could get the 60 votes to end Senate debate and bring the bill to a final vote. But he would need every Democratic vote, seat freshman Al Franken, D-Minn., whose 225-vote recount victory is being challenged in court by incumbent Republican Norm Coleman, and keep Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the only Republican who voted to end debate the last time the bill came up, in the fold.
The problem with that strategy is that some Democrats — including Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., and Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. — have expressed concern about moving the bill at this time.
"If the Republicans would cooperate with us just a little bit on some of the things we have to do, we could do it before the August recess," Reid said.
But Republicans don't sound like they're in a compromising mood.
"It won't become law because we've got 41 Republicans sticking together against it," Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, told the Iowa Independent, an on-line collaboration of journalists and bloggers that covers the state, on Tuesday. "And it's my understanding that we have some Democrats that are nervous about it, too. I don't see how you can get around a filibuster. And it will be filibustered."
(David Lightman and Steven Thomma contributed to this article.)
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