Sen. Arlen Specter’s announcement that he would not support a cloture vote on the Employee Free Choice Act may stall action for now on the bill, the center of a fierce fight between labor unions and business groups. But construction union and industry officials are not ruling out a vote on the measure before Memorial Day. Major retailers now are proposing a compromise.

“I won’t be satisfied that the bill is dead until Congress adjourns…in 2010,” says Stephen Sandherr, chief executive officer of the Associated General Contractors, which opposes the legislation.

Specter, the lone Republican to vote to close debate on the bill in 2007, says he does not support a similar vote now. “The problems of the recession make this a particularly bad time to enact Employee Free Choice legislation,” the Pennsylvanian says, adding that if the economy improves, he would reconsider his position.

The measure, organized labor’s top legislative priority, would make it easier for unions to organize by allowing employees to form a union when a majority signs authorization cards, rather than through a secret-ballot election. Supporters say the bill would level the field between employers and employees. Critics, who call the measure the “card check” bill, say a secret ballot protects workers from intimidation by union organizers.

The lone Republican to vote for cloture on the Employee Free Choice Act in 2007 says he will not support ending debate this time around, unless the economy substantially improves

Some moderate Senate Democrats are talking about a compromise. The CEOs of Starbucks, Whole Foods and Costco on March 21 floated what they call a “third way,” which would permit secret-ballot elections but limit their duration and impose stiffer penalties for labor violations. Lanny Davis, an attorney with the Washington, D.C., office of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, which represents the corporations, says the staffs of almost two dozen Democratic and Republican senators have expressed interest in the idea.

Business groups and unions flatly reject the plan. “We are not interested in a compromise on EFCA,” says Geoff Burr, the Associated Builders and Contractors’ vice president of government affairs. “There are some people out there who are talking about compromise, but it is not the business community and it’s not organized labor.” Terry O’Sullivan, Laborers’ International Union of North America general president, says the proposal “is simply a ploy to derail the steady advancement of the Employee Free Choice Act in Congress.”

Sandherr says the compromise “could be used as a Trojan horse to get the 60 votes in the Senate,” and then a House-Senate conference could produce a final bill that resembles the original one.

Tom Owens, spokesman for the AFL-CIO Building and Construction Trades Dept., says unions had anticipated the bill would be modified as it progressed through Congress. “It is our understanding that they are moving toward markup [in committee], and we’ll see what happens in the markup,” he says.