Specter facing GOP ultimatum

Sen. Arlen Specter has been told by several of his most faithful GOP backers in Pennsylvania that they’ll abandon their support if he votes for a union-rights bill working its way through Congress, an ultimatum that carries significance both for the measure and for Specter’s reelection next year.

The threat has come in unusually blunt terms at a time when some Republicans in the state are furious at the five-term senator for backing the economic stimulus package. It illustrates the shaky ground Specter finds himself on as he navigates a centrist role in the Senate ahead of a GOP primary in spring 2010.

The Employee Free Choice Act has mobilized business and labor activists into a full-fledged battle on Capitol Hill over whether to make it easier for workers to unionize. The measure would force companies to recognize unions if a majority of employees sign cards to join, in effect eliminating a rule that allows employers to request a secret-ballot election.

Also, it would enable either side to request binding arbitration if they can’t come to terms on a contract within 120 days after a union is formed, a provision that labor leaders highlight as a key change in the law because it is now common for lengthy delays -- sometimes lasting several years -- during negotiation.


President Obama has told labor leaders the bill will pass. But with some Senate Democrats still on the fence, both sides are anticipating changes to the legislation before it comes up for a vote.

Either way, Specter’s position could prove crucial to its success or failure. He is the only Republican who voted to move the bill forward two years ago -- he says he is undecided this year -- and business and labor leaders have zeroed in on him as they lobby on the Hill.

The political dynamics this year have added weight to Specter’s vote. He faces a tough primary challenge from Pat Toomey, a former Lehigh Valley congressman.

Allegheny County Republican Committee Chairman Jim Roddey said he’s been hearing about Specter throughout the Pittsburgh area.


“If he votes for the [measure], he is going to have a real, real difficult time with the base of the party,” Roddey said.

Roddey said he has spent the last several weeks meeting with Republican committees in Allegheny, where four out of five people he has spoken with have said they will vote for someone else in the primary if Specter supports the measure.

“It is very strong out here,” he said.

Specter says he has not heard from supporters who’ve told him they would walk away from him over the vote “in any sufficient number that would be weightier for me to pay attention to.”


“The politics is not emphasized,” he said of his conversations with supporters. “I can’t say it is never mentioned. It has never been a key point. I think that is because people realize it would be counterproductive. My arm is not twistable. And it is offensive to hear threats.”

The flip side is Specter’s standing among labor activists, who have stood behind him for years.

The senator was endorsed by the AFL-CIO during his last reelection run, in 2004. State AFL-CIO President Bill George predicted Specter’s vote on the Employee Free Choice Act would decide whether he gains a repeat endorsement next year.

“This is a priority for working-class people in this country,” George said. “This vote is probably the vote on whether to support Arlen Specter.”


He added: “If he stays with working families, we are going to support him in the primary and we are going to support him in the [general] election.”