By Lisa Wangsness and Susan Milligan Globe Staff / February 4, 2010
WASHINGTON -- By being sworn in today, a week earlier than planned, Senator-elect Scott Brown has put himself in a position to help fellow Republicans scuttle a hotly disputed Obama administration nomination to the National Labor Relations Board next week.
A vote to appoint the prominent union lawyer, Craig Becker, appears to be the only one in coming days in which Brown’s early arrival could make a crucial difference by giving Republicans their 41st vote in the Senate, allowing them to deploy the fili buster to block the nomination.
Brown may also face a vote on a jobs bill next week, but that vote is likely to draw support from both sides of the aisle and is not expected to be strongly contested by the GOP.
Brown, who enjoyed heavy rank-and-file union support in his upset election Jan. 19, declined a request for an interview yesterday, and a top adviser said he had not decided how to vote on the nomination of Becker to the board, which brokers disputes between unions and employers.
Brown has said he intends to buck Senate Republican leaders on some issues and work with Democrats toward common-sense compromises. Yet Brown is likely to begin his Senate career with a highly partisan vote — one he could have avoided if he had stuck to the original plan of taking office Feb. 11.
‘‘Everyone in the Senate would like to see Scott Brown seated as quickly as possible, because he was elected by the people of Massachusetts to represent them and his vote counts,’’ said Senator Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah. ‘‘When we consider a potential vote on a controversial nominee like Craig Becker, Scott Brown could be the deciding vote.’’
Brown’s election to succeed the late Edward M. Kennedy stalled the Democrats’ momentum on the Obama administration’s major health care bill. Senate majority leader Harry Reid did not try to ram through a health care overhaul before Brown was seated.
The jobs legislation is one in a series of bills lawmakers are preparing to spur the ailing economy and lower the 10 percent unemployment rate. While the $787 billion stimulus passed despite overwhelmingly Republican opposition, the jobs package, which could be introduced as early as next week, is bipartisan.
But Republican aides have asserted that Democrats are trying to hustle through several administrative appointments before Brown arrives, an assertion Democrats dispute. Democrats maintain that the GOP has been gratuitously obstructionist on what should be routine appointments.
On a party-line vote, the Senate on Monday decided to move ahead with the nomination of Patricia Smith, New York labor commissioner, to be the number three official in the Labor Department. The final vote, to be held today before Brown’s swearing in, will require only a 51-vote majority. The Senate also expects to hold an initial vote early this afternoon, before Brown takes his seat, on Martha Johnson as head of the General Services Administration.
But conservatives are most up in arms about the nomination of Becker, associate general counsel of the Service Employees International Union, one of the most powerful unions in the country, to the National Labor Relations Board.
Becker favors the ‘‘card check’’ bill, which would make it far easier for unions to organize workers. Called the Employee Free Choice Act, the bill would allow for the certification of a union if more than half of employees signed cards, even if there were no secret ballot election to demand a union.
The US Chamber of Commerce and other business groups argue that the bill, if passed, would allow unions to intimidate workers into signing up. Organized labor groups argue that employers now hold far more leverage over workers and pressure them to reject collective bargaining.
Becker has further inflamed Republicans because he is prolabor. In his legal writings, Becker has suggested that many of the goals of card check legislation could be accomplished through administrative rule-making, circumventing a vote in Congress. Senator Tom Harkin, chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, has defended Becker, saying his writings were the words of an academic, not a government arbiter.
‘‘At the end of the day, he’s just an unacceptable nominee who speaks to the fringe, not to mainstream America,’’ said Danny Diaz, a GOP strategist who represents the probusiness Workforce Fairness Institute, a research group that opposes card check.
Becker’s nomination was approved, 15 to 8, by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in October. Two Republicans joined the panel’s Democrats in voting to send the nomination to the floor, but Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, put a hold on it and demanded a full hearing on Becker.
Enacting card check is a top priority of all unions, particularly the Service Employees International Union, which considers the measure a critical tool in rebuilding membership in a country where just 12.3 percent of the workforce is unionized, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The Senate Health Committee is expected to vote again on Becker’s nomination today. With Brown in the Senate, it is less likely that Becker will be confirmed by the full chamber, Diaz said.
Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, Democrat of Nevada, said it will be a close vote.