Coakley's Stand -- A Union Problem?

From a strictly dispassionate political calculus, Martha Coakley's declaration that she would have voted against the House health-care bill looks like a dumb move. A frontrunner never wants to open up new differences with her opponents, which this obviously did -- since Michael Capuano actually did vote yes. And this is not just any old issue, this is the Big Vote, the Ted Kennedy Legacy, and all that.

It's a tricky issue, of course, both in fact and for campaign rhetoric. A last-minute deal forced a vote on the pro-life "Stupak Amendment," which added odious restrictions to the bill, from the perspective of Coakley, who is solidly pro-choice. Most, if not all, pro-choice Democrats in Congress -- including Capuano -- voted against the amendment (which passed anyway), but then voted for the final bill... and then called for the Stupak provisions to be stripped out of the bill at a later time, which they presumably will be.

All of that makes perfect sense from inside the Capitol Hill sausage factory, but doesn't exactly lend itself to a clean narrative on the campaign trail. But neither does saying you would vote against the health care bill. So the smart thing to do, presumably, would be to keep one's mouth shut -- after all, it was a House vote, and Coakley isn't even running for the House.

But now she has taken a stand, quite firmly it seems, to vote against any health care bill if it contains Stupak Amendment language. And, given the way things are progressing, it's very possible that our next Senator could be faced with exactly that situation in January -- and if Coakley's threat includes a no vote on closure (her spokeswoman would not answer that hypothetical), that could potentially kill the whole thing. Or, perhaps, kill the Stupak piece -- but force a different compromise, perhaps on the public option.

So, in essence, it comes down to juggling priorities, and legislative strategies to accomplish those priorities; different voters will come down differently on Coakley's approach.

But one subset of the electorate is pretty one-sided about it: the trade unions. You may recall that those trade unions kind of kicked Steve Lynch to the curb at the start of this Senate race, because Lynchie wasn't strong enough on health care reform. Many have endorsed Capuano, and a bunch have endorsed Coakley, and others have remained neutral. Now, Coakley says she would have voted no -- while Lynch voted yes.

"Lynchie did the right thing at the end of the day," says Robert Haynes, president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.

Buyer's remorse, anyone? Did Coakley choose her social-issue friends over her workers-issues friends when push came to shove?

Haynes won't go that far. His powerful group will not reconsider its decision not to endorse in the primary. (It's member locals were too divided between Coakley and Capuano.) And he is unwilling to prejudge what Coakley might do in a hypothetical Senate vote. But the AFL-CIO advocated hard for a yes vote on the bill, even with the Stupak language, and publicly thanked the Massachusetts delegation for voting that way.

And Haynes is clear that his organization will be pushing for a yes vote in the Senate, regardless of the abortion language. "I'm as curious as anyone else to see what happens" if Coakley is put in that position, Haynes says. "If you are the 60th vote for closure, do you want your first major vote in the Senate to be on the wrong side on such a historic issue?

Coakley spokesperson Alex Zaroulis calls this a false choice. "This is about making sure that we are getting health care reform for everybody, with no exclusions," she says, "and making sure you are not doing it on the backs of poor women."

Some area trade-union leaders I spoke with -- particularly those with predominantly female membership -- seem to agree, even though their organizations called for a yes vote on the House bill even with the Stupak amendment. Their feeling is that Coakley's opposition, motivated by a legitimate progressive concern, is OK -- whereas Lynch's concerns about health-care reform were based on more labor-unfriendly principles (or as they would put it, parroting of insurance industry lies).

That's the reaction of SEIU local 1199 -- which represents health-care workers, and has endorsed Coakley. "In this instance, we have sympathy for the important concerns behind Attorney General Coakley's response on this hypothetical question and we share her frustration with the Stupak amendment," executive vice president Mike Fadel said in an emailed statement. He added that the local has full confidence that in the Senate, Coakley could work effectively for both comprehensive health care and abortion rights.

Others I spoke with, in the more male-dominated trades, were a little less understanding. Their national leaders have been working very hard to maneuver this legislation to the goal line -- and they see Coakley as essentially calling an audible from the sidelines. Why, they wonder, could the adamantly pro-choice members of Congress understand the need to swallow the Stupak pill, but Coakley can't? The answer may simply be: only she has an election coming up in four weeks.
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