Labor Holds Emergency Meetings To Discuss Senate Bill, May Formally Oppose

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Sam Stein Senior Politics Editor, The Huffington Post

Two of the country's largest labor groups, the SEIU and the AFL-CIO, are each holding emergency executive meetings today to discuss whether they should support the latest round of health care compromises made by Senate Democrats.

Though there's no official word yet, early indications based on talks with various officials are that the groups will either formally oppose the legislation or, less dramatically, just not fight very hard to ensure its passage.

Labor leaders are fuming at the concessions that Democratic leadership made in the last few days to win the support of the caucus's most conservative members, notably Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.). A bill that already included one highly objectionable provision (a tax on so-called Cadillac insurance plans) was stripped of a provision beloved by labor: a public alternative to private insurance coverage. Frustration boiled over even further after the leadership succumbed to Lieberman's demand to jettison even the compromise to the public option -- a proposal to expand Medicare to those as young as 55.

Together, the changes have spurred emotional internal debates about the approach labor should take to the Senate bill. Dennis Rivera, the Health Care Chair at the SEIU, was slated to appear at a Capitol Hill press conference on Wednesday to push for senators not to filibuster reform. He pulled out from the event, which was sponsored by the pro-reform group Families USA, because of uncertainty about the union's position.

"We just couldn't do it," said an SEIU official. "We haven't even seen the manager's amendment... At this point, we have to make the final decision about how to proceed. There is an emergency meeting tonight to figure that out."

The AFL-CIO, likewise, is hosting an executive council meeting to discuss the legislation. Richard Trumka, the president of the union conglomerate, has been one of the foremost champions of a public plan. And on Tuesday, one of his close allies, Leo Gerard, the president United Steelworkers Union, hinted that opposition to the bill is in the offing.

"I believe that the House [of Representatives] has got a good bill," Gerard told MSNBC's Ed Schultz. "Hopefully it is going to have to go to committee, we're going to fight like crazy to make sure that we get a good bill. I'm not prepared to give up. I want to fight and get a good bill out of this. The American people deserve this and President Obama, whose values are right, he deserves this."

Labor's stance could have big ramifications. Progressive Senate Democrats held their noses as the legislation was watered down at the behest of Lieberman and others. Off the Hill, however, former Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean called for the current Senate proposal to be "killed" -- and others echoed his concerns.

The labor community has already poured massive resources into the health care debate. Now there is a growing concern that the money and time may have not been well spent. As one high-ranking labor official emailed the Huffington Post:

"What is really frustrating folks here is that it's impossible to make and implement plans to pressure senators when the White House and Reid keep undermining the efforts no one from the outside can put any credible pressure on Senators because they know the White House will back that Senator up whatever they do. If the White House is going to cave to a Senator who spent the entire election campaigning with McCain and calling Obama a traitor how are we supposed to have any leverage over anyone?

"If Lieberman -- who has done so many horrible things directly to Obama -- can get away with this on Obama's signature issue it makes it infinitely harder for us to pressure senators, on issues in the future, because there is no fear of retribution or coercion from the White House. They only pressure progressives, not anyone in the middle."