Mitt Romney, a likely contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, joined a forum of business advocates in Northern Virginia on Thursday to denounce a union-backed bill, the Employee Free Choice Act, as little more than political payback from Democrats that would worsen the nation's economic footing.
The bill would be "catastrophic for the economy," Romney said. "The impact long term is people start less businesses here. It's not great for the people who start businesses today, but it's even worse for the employees of tomorrow."
The act would make it easier for workers to form a union. Most notably, it would allow workers to automatically form a union if more than a half of them sign a card indicating they want to join one. This method is currently an option for employees so long as their employers approve it; otherwise, workers can form a union through a secret ballot and election process.
Romney on Thursday echoed one of the main complaints of the business community, which has said the increased costs of unionization would drive businesses out of the United States and potentially cripple those left here.
"If you want to start a high tech business, there's no requirement you have to start it in America," Romney said. "That's the risk here."
Mary Beth Maxwell, the executive director of labor group American Rights at Work, told Hotsheet earlier this year that EFCA will in fact help businesses by giving workers higher wages, allowing them to spend more.
"For business to succeed in the United States, we need a strong middle class where workers are working hard and earning wages where they can support their families and buy goods and services and continue to grow American businesses," she said. "People need to be able to make a decent wage and be able to spend that money – that's what's going to get this economy back on track."
The Obama administration has painted its policies, like the stimulus package, as pro-business, but Republicans have criticized Democrats for taking a heavy-handed approach to industry.
"There's nothing wrong with well thought-through regulation that makes it more predictable to do business," Romney said. "Sometimes regulation can be counterproductive."
While the Employee Free Choice Act has given Romney an opportunity to flesh out his potential policy proposals before another bid at the White House, it could also prove to be a litmus test for moderate senators, most notably Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Penn.).
The former Republican has waffled on the bill and remained opposed to it after switching to the Democratic party in late April. In mid-May, however, he indicated he could envision supporting a revised version of the legislation.
Specter has shifted slightly left on some issues as it has become clear he will need to earn the trust of his new party in order to keep his seniority in the Senate. He could very well be the deciding vote on the Employee Free Choice Act.
Romney, noting that Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) has a background in business, said, "It's hard for me to conceive of Sen. Warner voting for the bill." Warner is the newest Democratic senator in the recently-turned swing state of Virginia.
The bill, however, may not even make it to the full Senate for a vote. After passing in the House of Representatives before languishing in the Senate last year, it was reintroduced in March and now sits in committee.
Romney and the other speakers said the consequences of the legislation would take time to come to bear, but they would be significant.
"If you look at the auto industry, we don't want that to be the norm for the manufacturing industry," said Brett Vassey, president of the Virginia Manufacturers Association. "There's not enough bailout money" to deal with such a situation, he said.