WASHINGTON — Underscoring the bitter debate over a proposal to make it easier for workers to form unions, Republican senators are suggesting that President Obama's pick for Labor secretary must recuse herself from lobbying for the bill's passage.
A Senate committee will vote today whether to confirm Rep. Hilda L. Solis, a Democrat from El Monte.
In a written exchange with Solis, Republican senators indicated they are wary of her ties to a tax-exempt group dedicated to helping workers unionize.
Solis is treasurer of the organization, American Rights at Work. Federal records show that the group lobbied Congress last year to pass the measure, known informally as "card check."
Under the bill, employees would be able to form bargaining units by filling out a card, rather than voting in an election by secret ballot. Business and labor are on opposite sides of the issue, and both are preparing aggressive campaigns as the bill, also known as the Employee Free Choice Act, comes before Congress.
American Rights at Work, for its part, participated in a rally on Capitol Hill on Wednesday in support of the measure, dropping off petitions at Senate offices.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a leading business lobby, outlined its opposition strategy, saying the bill would "effectively eliminate the secret-ballot protection for workers" when deciding whether to join a union.
Solis' Cabinet nomination is in the crossfire. She was a co-sponsor of the bill in 2007 and has served for the last four years on the board of American Rights at Work. Solis receives no salary as a board member or treasurer.
Republican senators zeroed in on the organization in a series of written questions and answers obtained by the Tribune Washington Bureau.
In her initial public hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions last month, Solis faced criticism for sidestepping questions about the union-organizing issue. She was more forthcoming in subsequent written replies, saying she intended to work for passage if confirmed as Labor secretary.
In the written exchange, Republican senators asked if that would run afoul of Obama's new ethics policy. Obama has announced that appointees who lobbied on an issue must steer clear of it for their first two years of government service. The president has made some exceptions, however.
In their questionnaire, the senators noted that American Rights at Work has lobbied for passage of the bill. They asked Solis whether she would seek a waiver from the Obama administration or avoid any role in passing the legislation.
Solis replied that she does not need a waiver and has no intention of stepping back. She said she was only a member of Congress exercising her powers.
"I am not a registered lobbyist, nor do I in any way meet the statutory requirements for registration as a lobbyist," she wrote.
On the eve of the committee vote, Republicans were taking a cautious stance.
A spokesman for the top Republican member of the labor committee, Michael B. Enzi (R-Wyo.), said: "Sen. Enzi has received responses from Rep. Solis to his questions for the record, and he is reviewing those responses carefully."
Highlighting another worry, Republican lawmakers cited House ethics rules that bar members from lobbying, "or advising on lobbying," on behalf of a private organization -- even if the work is done for free.
Solis replied that there was no conflict of interest under the House rule. Her congressional office referred questions to the White House, which issued this reply: "Rep. Solis was not involved in any way in personally supervising any lobbying activities by American Rights at Work, and her service as a board member and treasurer of the organization in no way conflicted with her obligations as a member."
In disclosure forms filed with the House from 2004-07, Solis omitted any mention of American Rights at Work. She sent a letter to the House clerk on Jan. 29 correcting those documents, saying she was both a board member and treasurer.
A White House spokesman chalked up the omission to an "unintentional oversight."
"As soon as she became aware of this oversight, she moved to correct it and has filed a letter with the Clerk of the House correcting the omission," said the spokesman, Thomas Vietor.