WASHINGTON — Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) on Tuesday dealt a major setback to organized labor's top legislative priority, announcing that he opposes a bill that would make it easier for workers to unionize. That leaves the measure without a crucial Republican swing vote.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Specter said the dismal economy makes it "a particularly bad time" to enact the Employee Free Choice Act -- the so-called card check law -- but that he might reconsider "when the economy returns to normalcy."
His decision was a reversal from 2007, when he was the lone Republican who voted to advance the measure. It comes after weeks of intense lobbying from labor and business groups, as well as political allies who are anticipating a tough reelection battle for the Pennsylvania senator next year.
"I am announcing my decision now because I have consulted with a very large number of interested parties on both sides, and I have made up my mind," Specter, 79, said.
The measure, reintroduced this month, would force companies to recognize unions if a majority of employees sign cards to join, effectively barring employers from requiring a secret ballot election.
It would enable either side to request binding arbitration if they can't agree to a contract within 120 days after a union is formed.
With Senate Democrats two votes shy of a supermajority, they need to attract Republican support for the bill to pass -- support they have yet to gain.
Specter's speech drew praise from business advocates, including officials from the National Assn. of Manufacturers, which had decried the measure as a "job-destroying bill."
"We think we just won a big battle," spokesman Hank H. Cox said.
Said U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas J. Donohue: "We applaud the senator for taking a principled stand to support Main Street employers and workers in Pennsylvania."
Labor groups seemed stunned by the decision.
"Arlen Specter deceived us," said Jerry Green, president of the Lehigh Valley chapter of the United Steelworkers. "He led us to believe he was a champion and behind labor. This is a real slap in the face. Even a stab in the back."
AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said the announcement was "a disappointment and a rebuke to working people, to his own constituents in Pennsylvania and working families around the country."
"We do not plan to let a hardball campaign from big business derail the Employee Free Choice Act or the dreams of workers," Sweeney said in a statement. "In the coming weeks, we will be escalating our campaign and finding the best ways forward to a balanced, strong economy."
Specter's decision comes as he faces the prospect of a tough primary election next year, with two GOP challengers having already declared their candidacies, and a third -- former Rep. Pat Toomey -- expected to jump into the race.
The five-term senator had been told by several of his most faithful backers that he would lose their support if he backed the labor rights bill. And AFL-CIO Pennsylvania President Bill George assured Specter he would organize workers on the senator's behalf in the primary if he voted for the measure.
While the prospects for the bill appear dim, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the measure wasn't dead. "Anyone who thinks they're burying card check because of Specter's statement in an effort to avoid a primary in Pennsylvania should not think the legislation is going to go away," he told reporters.
Peter Wallsten in our Washington bureau contributed to this report.