The fight over the Employee Free Choice Act -- a.ka. "card check" -- appears to have ended before it even began. On Tuesday, Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, repudiated the legislation he co-sponsored in 2003 and 2005. In 2007, he voted against a filibuster of the bill. Back then, as Specter himself noted in a speech on the Senate floor, "50 senators, Democrats, voted for cloture and 48 Republicans against. I was the only Republican to vote for cloture." He would not, Specter announced, do so again.

So why the change of heart? Because apparently Specter realized that his vote might actually matter this time -- in a couple of ways. "With the prospects of a Democratic win in Minnesota," he continued, "it appears that 59 Democrats will vote to proceed with 40 Republicans in opposition. If so, the decisive vote would be mine." Though the National Federation of Independent Business immediately lauded Specter for "standing up for small business," a profile in courage this was not.

In his speech, Specter took aim at substantive elements of the bill, even as he backed making it easier for unions to organize: he has belatedly come to reject the "elimination of the secret ballot" and the provision imposing binding arbitration on the parties after four months. As an alternative, he proposed more moderate amendments to the National Labor Relations Act. And he worried that enacting card check in the midst of an economic crisis would only worsen it. "If efforts are unsuccessful to give Labor sufficient bargaining power through amendments to the NLRA, then I would be willing to reconsider Employees' Free Choice legislation when the economy returns to normalcy."

One expects that Specter is hoping "normalcy" returns after the 2010 primary, but before the general election in November. This is the second way his vote matters. Coincidentally, the day after he announced his switch on card check brought bad news for his re-election campaign, in the form of two new polls. One showed him trailing his likely challenger, conservative former Congressman Pat Toomey; the other (pdf) showed him trailing the undecideds, with a majority of Republicans saying "it is time for a change." Specter's vote for Obama's stimulus has clearly cost him with the base -- the margin for moderation is disappearing within the GOP.

Toomey had promised to make card check an issue in the primary, and while Specter may have neutralized it, it's not clear that the sitting senator's rightward feint will help him in the primary, and it could hurt him in the general. As U.S. News' Robert Schlessinger explains, "It seems unlikely that conservative voters will suddenly develop an affinity for him simply because he failed to do the wrong thing. He needs to affirmatively mend fences back home, not simply stop burning the ones still standing." If he were to lose the primary, he could've pulled a Joe Lieberman and run as an Independent -- Pennsylvania Democrats love Specter (an unrequited love, one suspects). But not after Tuesday: "You can be sure the unions will want to make an example of the senator," says Schlessinger. Incidentally, recent statistics from the Department of Labor show that union membership is rising a bit in Pennsylvania (and in the nation), which ranks 15th among the states in union penetration.

Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid and top Pennsylvania Democrats had been encouraging Specter to become a Democrat, or at least leave the GOP, but that's over now, he told The Hill today. Earlier, Reid said he thought other Republican senators may be willing to change their votes the other way, and vote for it. That's ludicrous, of course. Instead, the day of reckoning will have to wait until at least 2011, after the Senate seats in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and Missouri -- all presently held by Republicans -- are reallocated by the voters.