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Specter raises hopes for deal on major labor bill

The new Democrat said Thursday the "prospects are pretty good" for a compromise on legislation making it easier for workers to form unions.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sen. Arlen Specter said Thursday the "prospects are pretty good" for a compromise on legislation making it easier for workers to form unions.

Specter had come out against the bill in March, disappointing labor leaders. They had hoped he would be the crucial 60th vote needed to overcome an expected GOP filibuster of the Employee Free Choice Act.

The Pennsylvania senator has since switched from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party, and he said he's been meeting with labor leaders and fellow senators in hopes of coming up with a compromise he could support.

President Barack Obama said on Thursday that he hoped a compromise could be worked out.

"How do we make it easier for people who want to form a union to at least get a vote and have an even playing field?" Obama said in response to a question during a town hall meeting in Rio Rancho, N.M. "How do we do that, but at the same time get enough votes to pass the bill? That's what we're working on right now."

Specter wouldn't elaborate on the negotiations about the legislation, but said he is "hard at work trying to find some way to find an answer."

Pro-union pressure
The bill is a top priority of labor groups. It would allow a majority of employees at a work site to form a union by signing cards and take away the right of employers to demand secret ballot elections. It would impose stiffer penalties on employers that threaten workers who try to organize unions and provides for government arbitration if management and workers cannot agree on a first contract within 120 days after workers decide to unionize.

Specter had said he opposed the "card check" and arbitration provisions of the bill. He has supported union-friendly provisions such as speeding up the election process and giving unions more access to campaign at work sites.

Specter has shifted positions at a time he is facing political pressures. Specter faces the prospect of a primary challenge from Rep. Joe Sestak, and pro-union groups have placed intense pressure on him to support the bill as a condition of their support.

Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin, of Iowa, a lead sponsor of the bill, has been working for weeks to hammer out a compromise. He said this week he hoped to reach an agreement by next month.

Randel Johnson, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's vice president on labor issues, said business leaders are against negotiating from the card check bill as a starting point "because it's too radical of a place to start."

"These negotiators have it backwards," Johnson said. "The Senate should begin with true oversight hearings on the National Labor Relations Act, figure out what the problems are if any, then move to legislation."