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Labor Votes to Intrude on War, 9/11 Debates

Just because everyone on Capitol Hill will be talking about, thinking about and posturing over Iraq this week doesn’t mean that Members of Congress can’t multitask — and if all goes well for the Democratic majorities in both chambers, they’ll be able to take their jabs at President Bush over the Iraq War and pass a few measures designed to boost union membership, too. [IMGCAP(1)]

While the maneuvering for the perfect rebuke of the president’s Iraq policy continues in the House and Senate, both chambers are expecting major battles over organized labor this week.

And Republicans are planning a fierce push-back on bills they say would hamper homeland security, restrict democracy and lead to the harassment and coercion of average workers.

“The theme is clearly going to be the Democrat ‘payback’ for union support,” said Ryan Loskarn, spokesman for the Senate Republican Conference.

The House plans to vote Thursday on a bill to relax union organizing rules — allowing a union to form if a majority of workers sign cards authorizing it, rather than the current practice of holding federally supervised, secret-ballot votes.

Democrats say corporations for years have used intimidation to prevent unions from even getting a vote, and that the bill would level the playing field for workers.

But with the backing of the business community’s lobbying juggernaut on K Street, House Republicans say they may not be able to prevent the Employee Free Choice Act from passing that chamber this week, but that their public relations offensive will set the stage for its ultimate demise in the Senate.

“House Democrats have the votes to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, but Republicans will win the debate,” said one House Republican leadership aide.

Chief among the Republicans’ talking points on the bill is that the measure would “kill private voting rights altogether” and that “card checks” could allow union organizers to unfairly pressure workers to join, said the House GOP leadership aide.

Republicans also point to a 2001 letter that some House Democrats sent to Mexican officials as proof that supporters of the bill are “shockingly hypocritical.”

The letter, signed by House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.), stated, “We feel that the secret ballot is absolutely necessary in order to ensure workers are not intimidated into voting for a union they may otherwise not choose.”

But Democrats say the “bipartisan bill is part of Democrats’ efforts to ensure that all Americans have a fair shot at the American dream, including a good job and fair wages,” according to Stacey Bernards, spokeswoman for House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

Bernards also noted that the measure has 233 co-sponsors, seven of whom are Republicans.

Still, the bill faces major obstacles in the Senate, where Republicans already are planning to lay down their markers this week on a much less sweeping bill allowing airport screeners to unionize.

Ostensibly, the Senate will be debating a bill to implement the recommendations of the 9/11 commission, but Republicans are agitated by a provision, added in committee, that would allow employees at the Transportation Security Agency to join a union.

“Much of the Republican effort will be to oppose that,” said one knowledgeable Senate GOP aide.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) will lead the Senate GOP effort against the provision, with Republicans arguing that allowing airport security screeners to join unions could imperil national security if employees were to walk off the job or stage “sick outs” over failed salary negotiations.

“The rationale for unionizing security employees is difficult to discern — but the American people will recognize that it has zero to do with improving security and everything to do with rewarding Democrat donors,” said Loskarn.

The push-back on the Democratic side is likely to come from none other than Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.). Though Lieberman has been at loggerheads with his fellow Democrats over Iraq — he supports the war, they don’t — he actually offered the TSA proposal to the 9/11 bill in committee earlier this month.

Democrats contend that TSA workers should be able to have collective bargaining rights along with other Department of Homeland Security employees, such as customs and border control agents.

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans may also offer an amendment to the 9/11 bill that would legalize the president’s now-defunct warrantless wiretapping program. After federal courts ruled it unconstitutional, the Bush administration agreed to submit its requests to spy on Americans’ overseas phone calls and e-mails to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.

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