Business Interests Focus On the Fight for Senate Control

by Stuart Rothenberg September 5, 2008 · 12:05 AM EDT

While most Republicans in Minneapolis-St. Paul are focused on the race for the White House, many in the business community are equally concerned about this year’s Senate contests. That’s because unless Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) wins the presidency, the Senate will be the only place where they can stop the passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.

The bill would allow employees to organize a workplace when a majority of workers sign a card indicating they want to join a union. It would also require binding arbitration to set the details of the first contract after union organization if the union and employer cannot agree.

Veterans of past business-labor political wars on Capitol Hill don’t mince words about what they say is at stake for the business community.

“Every 10 years or so, you get a huge business issue. This time, it’s two words: card check,” said one longtime trade association executive who is attending the GOP convention, using the business community’s handle for the EFCA.

“Card check is the one issue that agitates everyone from the small businessman on Main Street to corporate executives of the largest companies,” a business lobbyist said.

Political strategists who work for the business community fear that the proposal’s enactment into law will tip the scales toward organized labor and their Democratic Party allies, making it easier for unions to organize and raise more funds.

They also fear that those unions will “pair up” with other traditional Democratic constituencies, including environmentalists and trial lawyers, to pass other legislation that will burden business.

The Democratic-controlled House has passed the bill, but supporters of the legislation couldn’t get it through the Senate because of a Republican filibuster.

The proposed legislation has proved to be a heavily partisan proposal, with just two House Democrats (Oklahoma Rep. Dan Boren and Mississippi Rep. Gene Taylor) opposing the measure and only 13 House Republicans favoring it.

In the Senate, every Democrat supported cutting off the GOP filibuster except Sen. Tim Johnson (S.D.), who did not vote, and only one Republican, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, favored cutting off debate, the key test of the measure given Democratic control of the Senate this year and the certainty that they will control it again, with a far bigger majority, in 2009.

A number of veteran business political strategists believe that they will lose the votes of at least a few Republicans — possibly including the two Senators from Maine, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Specter and others — if and when Democrats try to break another GOP filibuster in the next Congress.

While those strategists surely will continue to woo a handful of more moderate Democrats who might, in theory, be inclined to join with Republicans to prevent a vote on the bill, the partisan nature of the measure limits the potential of their success. Both Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu voted to cut off debate this year.

Business strategists would make a major effort to persuade Ronnie Musgrove, the Democratic Senate nominee in Mississippi and a former governor of the state, to join with Republicans in fighting the measure if he wins his Senate race.

All of this means that November’s Senate contests take on a particularly crucial aspect both for business and organized labor, especially because McCain still trails in his bid for the White House.

As the Senate contests stand now, at least five Republican seats are at grave risk: Virginia, New Mexico, Alaska, Colorado and New Hampshire, with another handful also in play.

Losing five seats would take the Republican minority from 49 seats to 44 seats, possibly enough to continue to block a Senate vote on the pro-labor-union measure but far from the cushion that business strategists would like to have on such a crucial vote.

And the real danger of additional losses, including in North Carolina, Oregon and Minnesota, could take GOP numbers in the next Senate even lower, all but guaranteeing that Democrats could end the Republican filibuster and pass the bill.

Ironically, the best positioned of all the “endangered” GOP Senators this cycle, Maine’s Collins, is widely seen as one of the Republicans who might vote to allow a vote on the bill when it comes up again.

The business community has rallied around efforts, including those initiated by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, to raise the visibility of the issue, and there is considerable evidence that they have succeeded. The TV ads and opinion pieces seem to be working. But unless McCain wins the White House or Republican Senate losses are limited to no more than five seats, organized labor could gain an important new organizing tool. And that, unquestionably, would be another win for the Democrats.