WASHINGTON — House lawmakers are poised to pass legislation Wednesday to avert a catastrophic rail strike that President Joe Biden warned could threaten the U.S. economy just weeks before Christmas.
After a meeting with Biden and other top congressional leaders, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Tuesday she is confident there will be enough votes to pass the resolution in the House. It then would head to the Senate, where both Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have said lawmakers need to intervene this week.
“Leader McConnell and I both want to pass it quickly,” Schumer told reporters in the Capitol. “We understand the time deadlines, and we’ll be working together and figure out the best way to get it done quickly.”
But senators have just days to act — railway workers are vowing to strike by Dec. 9 if a new agreement can’t be reached — and some lawmakers are threatening to throw up roadblocks that could slow the process. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a labor ally, said Tuesday that the bill doesn’t go far enough and that he will hold it up until the Senate votes on his amendment to ensure that workers get paid sick leave.
“At a time of record profits in the rail industry, it’s unacceptable that rail workers have ZERO guaranteed paid sick days,” Sanders tweeted. “It’s my intention to block consideration of the rail legislation until a roll call vote occurs on guaranteeing 7 paid sick days to rail workers in America.”
Other progressives also wouldn’t commit to back the rail proposal. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., also said she wanted paid sick leave included in the final bill: “There is plenty of money for these rail companies to provide a few sick days for the people who are actually doing the work.”
And while he touted Biden as “the most pro-union president of our lifetimes,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he hasn’t decided how he will vote yet.
House Democratic leaders have come up with a creative solution to address the concerns of progressives in their caucus. Pelosi said Tuesday night that the House will vote on the rail legislation, which would adopt a tentative agreement the White House negotiated between the railroad companies and labor leaders in September.
But the House will also vote separately on a bill that would add seven days of paid sick leave to the deal. Both bills are expected to be sent to the Senate, which can decide how to proceed.
It’s not just liberals who are slamming the legislative fix. Conservative Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said he wants Congress to get out of the way and the workers and the operators to go back to the negotiating table.
“Just because Congress has the authority to impose a heavy-handed solution does not mean we should,” Rubio said in a statement. “It is wrong for the Biden Administration, which has failed to fight for workers, to ask Congress to impose a deal the workers themselves have rejected.”
Rubio said he won’t vote for “any agreement that does not have the support of the rail workers.”
Another conservative, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., also suggested he will vote no, citing union opposition. Workers “said no and then Congress is gonna force it down their throats at the behest of this administration?” he asked.
Four of 12 railway unions rejected the White House-brokered deal this year, and Biden on Monday called on Congress to step in after talks between workers and their employers appeared to stall. While the Dec. 9 deadline is more than a week away, railroads need to notify shipping companies a week earlier, by this coming Friday, if a strike is planned.
The economic consequences of a strike could be dire. Biden said up to 765,000 people could be “put out of work” in the first two weeks.
Congress has the authority to block a strike and impose a labor agreement on the workers under a 1926 law, the Railway Labor Act, designed to prevent the interruption of interstate commerce in labor disputes.
Biden “is confident that we will not have a rail strike. That is what he’s confident about,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday aboard Air Force One. “He’s confident that we’re going to get to a resolution on this.”
Shannon Pettypiece, Frank Thorp V, Haley Talbot and Kate Santaliz contributed.