WASHINGTON — Whether you label it the "card check" bill or the Employee Free Choice Act, you can also call it something else -- in deep trouble.
Key senators this week appeared to cripple prospects for passing the highly polarizing measure, the labor movement's top priority in Congress, which is aimed at making it easier for workers to join unions.
The latest hurdle came Friday, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said she would seek alternative legislation that was less divisive. Feinstein, a past sponsor of the act, cited the flailing economy as a reason; other critics of the bill have said it would drive up operating costs for businesses at a perilous time.
"This is an extraordinarily difficult economy, and feelings are very strong on both sides of the issue," Feinstein said in a statement. "I would hope there is some way to find common ground that would be agreeable to both business and labor."
Feinstein's words came days after Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) declared that he would not support the bill. Specter too had supported the act in the past, and his announcement was viewed as eliminating any chance that Democrats could muster enough votes to break a promised Republican filibuster.
The card-check bill would bypass the traditional union election process and allow workers to be certified as a bargaining unit if a majority signed cards indicating their support for a union. The proposal played a leading role in congressional campaigns across the country, with voters bombarded by televised ads applauding and demonizing the bill.
Now its supporters are scrambling to figure out their next move. It appears clear that if the legislation has a future, it will not be in its present form.
"We knew all along that this bill would be amended. It seems clear now we'll have to look at some changes to get to the floor," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), a cosponsor of the legislation.
Supporters see card check as a way to improve wages and benefits for workers, who could then pump more disposable income into the economy.
"Passing the Employee Free Choice Act would be like a mini-economic stimulus package -- pumping approximately $49 billion into the economy each year at a time when working families need it most," said Christy Setzer of the Service Employees International Union.
Opponents, including some of the most powerful business lobbies in Washington, say that it would devastate businesses and that it amounts to a political power grab by union interests such as the AFL-CIO.
"Nothing in that bill will help create jobs," said Keith Smith, director of employment and labor policy for the National Assn. of Manufacturers.
While the card-check provision has drawn the most attention, opponents are just as concerned about language that would require compulsory arbitration if management and a newly certified unit could not reach an agreement within four months using collective bargaining.
Card-check opponents say that would allow the government to force unwanted contract provisions on companies, increasing costs. Proponents say the provision would encourage companies to strike contracts with unions quickly.
All along, Republicans have made it clear that they would try to stop the bill with a filibuster. Specter's announcement Tuesday means all 41 Senate Republicans are lined up against the measure.
Some moderate Democrats are queasy too. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), for example, has come out strongly against the bill. Other moderates, such as Sen. Mary L. Landrieu (D-La.), have been noncommittal.
A majority of Democrats in the House support the bill, but party leaders there won't force a politically sensitive floor vote if there is no chance the legislation can clear the Senate.
Unions say they are somewhat open to a compromise bill, but they insist that it must include provisions that make organizing easier, force companies to negotiate contracts quickly and increase penalties against employers that retaliate against union organizers.
Last week, the executives of three companies known for their progressive images -- Costco, Starbucks and Whole Foods -- offered what they called a "third way." It would eliminate the binding arbitration provision and preserve management's right to demand a secret-ballot election when workers seek to form bargaining units. But it would also shorten the period management would have to campaign against unionization.
The plan was condemned by both organized labor and big business.
"This proposal is unacceptable. It was written by CEOs for CEOs," Harkin said in a statement co-written by Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), the act's chief House sponsor.
"It was not a serious attempt to compromise," said Smith of the manufacturers' group.
But the proposal's advocates aren't surrendering, and at least one Democratic senator, Mark Pryor of Arkansas, said he liked the idea. John Mackey, chief executive of Whole Foods, plans to visit Capitol Hill on Tuesday to push the plan.
Lanny J. Davis, a Washington lawyer and former Clinton administration advisor who is spearheading the compromise effort, said that Specter was being recruited for an endorsement and that the group had spoken to Feinstein's office last week. He said he hoped that legislation codifying the proposal could be offered next month.