by: Kevin Bogardus and J. Taylor Rushing
Democratic senators on Wednesday downplayed Sen. Arlen Specter's (D-Pa.) prediction that the chamber would pass a contentious union-organizing bill this year, saying they are in the process of shoring up support for a compromise that is being hashed out.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), one of several negotiators working to reach agreement on a modified version of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), also known as card-check, said they have made progress toward a deal but have yet to ink one.
Several Democrats on Wednesday confessed to knowing nothing about a proposed deal, and the party's top two leaders in the conference called the card-check proposal a work in progress.
"We have had real good discussions," Carper said. "As they say, frank and honest discussion. I think we have made real progress and narrowed somewhat of the differences between organized labor and the business community. We are not quite there yet. My hope is we will finish what we have started."
Specter on Tuesday told the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh that senators "have pounded out an Employees Choice bill which will meet labor's objectives" and predicted it would pass before the end of this year. That set off a flurry of activity from lawmakers and union officials saying no agreement had been reached.
Carper said while negotiations over the bill have come closer to a "consensus approach," no deal has been brokered. Centrist Democrats, Carper said, have not been included in talks among negotiators so far.
"I don't think they know because they are not aware of the negotiations or where the middle ground lays," Carper said. "It just has not been roundly discussed. We will reconvene later this fall."
The Delaware senator indicated that there have been no formal talks on the union bill since July.
Asked about any deal on the bill, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said," I'm not aware of any."
Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said the same, calling the issue "a work in progress" and saying he expects the Democrats' lead negotiator, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), will inform Democrats when a deal is reached.
"It's been in progress for months," Durbin said. "I think if they ever reach common agreement, they'll notify us and then we will take it from there." Centrist Democrats also said they were unaware of any agreement.
"Nothing final, to my knowledge, has been finalized, but I know members from both sides have been working on, I guess, a compromise," said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) was surprised to hear the issue was being revived. "From what I understood, the whole card-check issue was dead," Hagan said. And Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), who faces reelection in 2010 and said earlier this year she would oppose the bill, said she is unaware of any changes. "I haven't heard or seen anything yet," Lincoln said.
What remains unclear is what a deal would look like.
Lawmakers have been discussing removing a contentious provision that would allow workers to bypass secret-ballot elections and unionize when a majority of them sign authorization cards. In his speech before the AFL-CIO, Specter suggested that another controversial measure that would force management and workers to negotiate union contracts quickly - termed binding arbitration - was included in the agreement.
"The bottom line is they have a deal," said a Democratic lobbyist, but questions remain over the whip count.
With Sen. Edward Kennedy's (D-Mass.) death, there are 59 senators in the Democratic Conference, not enough to overcome a filibuster. Even if Lincoln votes for the bill, that's one short, and there have been discussions among lawmakers of reaching out to centrist Republican senators, such as Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, said the lobbyist.
Nevertheless, Democrats' best chance of passing the labor bill may have come last summer.
Last week, in a speech before labor activists on Capitol Hill, Harkin said he wanted to bring the bill to the floor in July but stopped when Kennedy could not come to Washington and vote due to illness.
Harkin said Wednesday he felt he was only close to a deal then and not completely there.
"I thought we were close to having an agreement that we could bring it out and vote on. Close - nothing's final until you bring it out," Harkin said.
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