The Senate yesterday sent the administration's controversial labor law revision bill back to committee for redrafting in a maneuver by Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.) to rescue the measure from immediate death by filibuster.
"The move reflected the inability of the combined forces of the White House, the Senate Democratic leadership and organized labor to get the necessary 60 votes to choke off a five-week filibuster led by a handful of freshman Republicans.
The action - indicating that only drastic surgery can save the legislation and that it may be too late for that - came as the Senate failed for the sixth time to invoke cloture to stop the debate.
The vote was 53 to 45, with Byrd and several other filibuster opponents switching sides in a tactical maneuver to prevent the ballot from assuming the proportions of a legitimate showdown. Yesterday's vote was expected to be the final attempt to break the filibuster.
Before the switches, it appeared that the antifilibuster forces would get 58 votes, the same number they got in their previous two attempts last week.
The fate of the measure - which has prompted what AFL-CIO President George Meany once called a "holy war" between business and labor - will probably not be clear for another month.
The bill, which would generally make it easier for employes to unionize and win contracts, was recommitted to the Senate Human Resources Committee without specific instructions that it be sent back to the floor for action. The only instruction was that it not be returned before July 15, which gives the Senate its first opportunity in more than a month to work in other legislation.
Opponents predicted that the bill will never reemerge from committee, but Byrd and the ranking committee members said they expect the bill to come back to the floor, sufficiently modified to pick up enough votes to assure passage.
They indicated that revisions may be made in the new deadlines proposed for union representation elections, penalties for violating the law to black organizing or bargaining efforts and a proposal to give unions limited access to company property during organizing drives.
"The issue has not been settled," Byrd told the Senate in response to a wave of victory claims from filibuster supporters. "I fully expect the committee to report back a bill."
The bill "is very very much alive," said Human Resources Chairman Harrison A. Williams (D-N.J.), who told reporters the committee will begin meeting next week on the bill. The committee will turn out a "lean and hard bill," said Sen. Jacob K. Javits (R-N.Y.), the committee's ranking Republican and a supporter of the bill.
But Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), a filibuster leader, said the debate will resume if the measure is not amended to the satisfaction of opponents, who have made it clear their objections go to the heart of what they describe as the pro-union bias of the legislation.
Sen. Richard G. LUGAR (R-Ind.), another filibuster leader, said he regarded recommittal as a "tactful way to bring affairs to an end."
he AFL-CIO acknowledged disappointment, but interpreted the vote merely as acknowledgment of a "stalemate," and recommittal as an opportunity to pick up additional votes.
Labor Secretary Ray Marshall expressed in a statement his disappointment over yesterday's actions, and said he hoped the Human Resources Committee could produce a bill that can survive a cloture vote.
Richard Lesher, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said yesterday's action was confirmation of "a strong instinctive feeling among Americans that labor unions already are too powerful," adding that it was "a resounding victory for the American people."
Byrd's move to recommit the bill came as a surprise. After several days of heavy negotiations with wavering senators, Byrd failed to get the necessary 60 votes, but Sen. Russell B. Long (D-La.) agreed to go along if the bill were amended in committee to encompass changes he wanted.