WASHINGTON — A coalition of labor unions is emerging as a leading critic of an $829 billion health care bill heading toward a Senate vote, complicating debate among Democrats over how to pay for the measure.
Unions had largely supported President Obama's effort to revamp the nation's $2.6 trillion health care system, but 27 labor groups have launched a campaign against key provisions in the bill passed this week by the Senate Finance Committee.
Many groups with a stake in the health care fight have objected to the legislation — including the insurance trade group, America's Health Insurance Plans — but labor has traditionally had closer ties to Democrats, who control Congress.
Unions spent $75 million on contributions to federal candidates in 2008, 92% of which went to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
"This push is really a reflection of the struggle that's going to take place in the Democratic Party in how you move forward," said Jacob Hacker, a political scientist at Yale University.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and other Democratic leaders have started merging the Finance Committee bill with separate legislation approved in July by the Senate's health committee. The new bill is to be released this month.
Unions want Reid to include a government-run insurance program in the merged bill and remove a tax on high-priced insurance policies. Gerald McEntee, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), estimates half of its 1.6 million members would be affected by the tax.
McEntee said union workers have often chosen to accept lower wages in exchange for better and more costly health insurance. He said union members, who frequently organize get-out-the-vote efforts for Democrats, won't be afraid to remind politicians of that in next year's election.
"We worked for all these people. We worked for Obama," he said. "What do we get for it? We not only don't get anything for it, we get a slap in the face."
McEntee favors the House health care bill, which includes an income tax surcharge on high-income workers and a government insurance plan.
Many of the ideas favored by unions are opposed by moderate Democrats as well as Republicans and would make it difficult to attract the 60 votes needed in the Senate to end filibusters. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., for instance, has said he will not support government-run insurance called for in other versions of the bill.
The AFL-CIO, the Air Line Pilots Association and the UAW are also part of the coalition. The effort began with newspaper advertisements this week and McEntee said it may expand into television ads and "boots on the ground" in coming weeks.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warned that the Senate Finance Committee bill will become more partisan as it is merged with other bills. "Right down here in the majority leader's conference room they'll be writing the real bill," he said.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said unions raise legitimate concerns. "This bill is going to change significantly," he said.