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Unions Spending Big to Influence House Vote

Top union brass are shuttling back to Washington, D.C., today to make last-minute pleas with undecided House Members, who interrupted their recess to vote on a $26.1 billion state aid package, a priority for organized labor for nearly a year.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten on Monday was busy finalizing her Beltway comeback from a vacation spot on eastern Long Island. National Education Association lobbyist Kim Anderson was plotting her return from Martha’s Vineyard.

“This is a big deal,” said Weingarten, who, like Anderson, has been part of a massive lobbying effort to warn Members about possible revenue shortfalls for states and local municipalities.

For the past four months, Weingarten has visited two cities per week to rally support for the legislation. Although the proposal had been dormant for months, she said it gained traction in the spring, when local officials across the country began new rounds of teacher layoffs and furloughs.

“We have a rhythm about us. By April, May, June, you start planning for the next school year,” she said. “That’s when it started to hit Members: This is real, and somebody has to step in.”

Earlier this summer, the National Governors Association also told Senate leaders that even though states have cut spending by 11 percent during the past two years, their governments still face a $127 billion shortfall until 2012. The group sounded an alarm on an extension to Medicare funding, which is included in the legislation Members will vote on today.

The vote also will cap off 12 months of intense advocacy work by the NEA, which spent $4.1 million lobbying Members on the emergency funding bill. Anderson said her group purchased two rounds of television advertisements in the Washington area and radio spots in targeted House districts in recent months. But the bulk of the money, the union lobbyist said, was spent on grass-roots activities, such as fly-ins to meet with lawmakers who she said were overwhelmed with local news coverage of possible budget cuts.

“We just kept hammering away,” Anderson said. “The press has declared this bill dead at least 15 times.”

NEA members also sent 300,000 e-mails to Congressional offices and made 100,000 telephone calls in support of the funding measure.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees spent more than $1 million on television and newspaper advertising to push for passage. And its members logged more than 60,000 telephone calls, e-mails and letters to Congressional offices.

“This bill is going to save the jobs of hundreds of thousands of American workers in the private and public sectors, including teachers, police and firefighters — and it won’t add a penny to the deficit,” AFSCME Secretary-Treasurer Lee Saunders said in a statement. “While Democrats protected American jobs, Republicans voted to hand pink slips to nearly one million Americans and tried to wreck the economy for political gain.”

Such political rhetoric will not end with today’s vote.

Teachers unions are promising retribution for lawmakers who do not authorize the spending package — a threat that is likely to target Republicans as well as conservative Democrats, who face tough midterm re-election contests but are worried about spending more taxpayer dollars.

As of Monday, only a handful of GOP Members were considered possible “aye” votes, including Reps. Timothy Johnson (Ill.), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Mike Castle (Del.). Kirk and Castle are both running for the Senate in 2010.

“This is about whose side you’re on,” Weingarten said. “Are you on the side of kids or not?”

Should Democrats muster enough votes to pass the funding bill, which the Senate approved last week, not everyone will walk away happy.

Poverty and religious groups are concerned that the legislation is being paid for with cuts to the federal food stamp program, but they expressed optimism the offsets will be restored before the money runs out in 2013.

“We regret the source of the funding for the extension and that it’s coming from food stamps,” Families USA health policy analyst Jennifer Sullivan said. “We’re hopeful that the House will otherwise look for alternatives to restore the cuts down the line.”

Candy Hill, a government affairs executive with Catholic Charities, also was critical of how Members paid for the state-funding legislation. Still, she wants the bill to pass. “We don’t want the offset to be on the backs of people who are already suffering,” Hill said.

The Catholic Archdiocese of Washington is furious that Democratic leaders are not including District education assistance in today’s package. On July 22, Archbishop Donald Wuerl asked Congressional authorizers to renew the $13.2 million D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, a voucher plan that pays for students to attend parochial elementary and high schools.

Jennifer Daniels, the director of government relations for D.C. Catholic schools, called today’s vote the result of “a political game” designed to appease union members.

“It’s destroying our program, and they’re handing out billions of dollars for unneeded reasons,” she said. “It’s a stab in the back to see this kind of lunacy.”

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