Biden, Congress race to avert economy-shaking railroad strike

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A potential railroad strike has thrown President Biden a holiday curveball and pushed Congress into crisis mode, scrambling to finalize a federal fix to stave off an economy-rattling freight shutdown at the end of next week.

Biden hosted the top four congressional leaders at the White House on Tuesday, less than a day after he’d urged Congress to break the impasse between rail companies and unionized employees that’s threatened to freeze much of the nation’s freight system on Dec. 9.

Shortly after the gathering, House Democratic leaders said they’d rush a resolution to the floor Wednesday morning, where it’s expected to pass with bipartisan support despite reservations from lawmakers on the fringes of both parties.

“This is about whether or not we shut down the railroads of America, which would have extreme, negative impacts on our economy,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) told reporters as he announced the vote.

The proposal has been panned both by liberals, who said it doesn’t go far enough to help rail workers, particularly when it comes to sick leave benefits, and by conservatives, who are attacking the very notion that the federal government would “meddle” in a private sector dispute. And Hoyer stopped short of saying it has the votes to pass. 

“We just got back,” he said. “We’re counting.” 

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced on Tuesday evening that the House will vote Wednesday on the tentative agreement, then consider a separate measure that would add seven days of paid sick leave to the resolution — a direct response to the criticism some Democrats have raised regarding the agreement.

The House will then send the package to the Senate for consideration, Pelosi said.

All sides agree that a rail shutdown would debilitate an already fragile economy heading into the holidays, and top lawmakers in both parties appeared ready to push the bill through, saying they had no other choice. 

“At this late hour, it is clear that there is little we can do other than to support this measure,” Rep. Tom Cole (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the House Rules Committee, said Tuesday as the bill was sent to the floor. “The clock is running out, and the president has made clear that this resolution is necessary to avoid a costly strike at the nation’s railroads right as we go into the holiday season.”

The heavier lift will be in the Senate, where 60 votes will be needed to avoid a GOP filibuster — a bar that will be tougher to top if liberal senators also oppose the measure. 

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said it’s too early to know how many Republicans will get on board.

“There are mixed views, and you’ll just have to work a little harder and talk to our members about it,” he told reporters in the Capitol. 

Under a 1926 law, Congress has the power to intervene in labor disputes between railroad companies and their workers — a power designed to prevent interruptions in vital interstate commerce. Since then, Congress has tapped that authority 18 times to avoid strikes, according to the Chamber of Congress

In September, the Biden administration had brokered a last-minute deal between the rail carriers and union leaders that averted a strike before the midterm elections. But train workers at one of the largest rail unions, SMART-TD, voted it down, citing the absence of new paid sick leave benefits in the White House deal.

Those same concerns are at the center of the current dispute. Union leaders pressed for 15 days of paid sick leave, but the White House’s tentative agreement only provided one additional personal day — a significant difference that is drawing ire among union workers and left-leaning lawmakers.

The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes Division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters — the third-largest rail union in the U.S. — has argued that depriving employees of sick leave will worsen supply chain problems rather than alleviate the snafus.

Liberal lawmakers are jumping on that bandwagon, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who blocked legislation in September that would have forced workers to accept the agreement without paid leave. Tuesday afternoon, he vowed to block consideration of the resolution until the Senate votes on his amendment guaranteeing seven paid sick days for rail workers.

“At a time of record profits in the rail industry, it’s unacceptable that rail workers have ZERO guaranteed paid sick days,” Sanders wrote on Twitter.

With the House poised to vote on Wednesday, liberals in the lower chamber have joined Sanders in bashing Congress’s heavy hand. 

“No worker in America should have to choose between their health and a paycheck,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), a deputy whip of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, wrote on Twitter. “I will not vote in favor of any rail agreement that comes to the House floor without adequate sick days and the support of rail workers.”

Pelosi acknowledged that the resolution is imperfect, citing the absence of new sick leave benefits. But she’s also defending the resolution as the last best chance to avert a strike — and economic disaster. 

“I don’t like going against the ability of unions to strike, but weighing the equities, we must avoid a strike,” Pelosi said as she left the White House. “Jobs will be lost, even union jobs will be lost, water will not be safe, products will not be going to market, we could lose 750,000 jobs, some of them union jobs. That must be avoided.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another liberal icon, said she recognizes the dangers of crippling the economy with a rail strike, but added that “it’s also powerfully important that workers not be forced to show up injured or sick to work because they can’t get a handful of sick days from their employer.”

She wants to give the unions more time to negotiate.

“Right now, we need to keep pushing the parties to find an agreement,” Warren said. “There’s plenty of money for these rail companies to provide a few sick days for the people that are actually doing the work.”

The concerns have not gone unheard, but Biden and top Democrats are nonetheless plowing ahead with the congressional fix, contending that the risks of a strike are too dire to ignore.

Asked if Biden would support including paid leave in the resolution, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre stressed the need to protect the agreement that has support from a majority of unions.

“The president’s not going to take any action that would undermine the urgent need to avert a harmful rail shutdown. That’s the way that the president sees this,” Jean-Pierre said. “Again, he’s the president for all Americans.”

The decision to intervene in the rail negotiations is a personal one for Biden, who as a senator in 1992 was one of six to vote against emergency legislation that ended a two-day rail shutdown, one of the 18 times Congress has intervened in such matters.

In his Monday statement calling on Congress to intervene amid the stalemate, Biden touted his pro-union bona fides while underscoring the threat a rail strike poses.

“As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement,” Biden said. “But in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families — I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has not specified when the House resolution would be considered in the upper chamber. But he’s stressing that Congress has no time to lose. 

“While the actual deadline of the railroads being shut down is the 8th, our real deadline is sooner than that because … many of the people who, many of the suppliers, if they believe there may well be a shutdown, will then not send their goods,” Schumer said.

“So the real deadline is sooner and we’re going to try to solve this ASAP.”

Al Weaver and Alex Gangitano contributed reporting.

This story was updated at 7:16 p.m.

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