WASHINGTON — The House passed legislation Wednesday to avert a potentially catastrophic rail strike that President Joe Biden warned could threaten the U.S. economy just weeks before Christmas.
The bill, which passed 290-137 with broad bipartisan support, now heads 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 after a meeting with Biden and other top congressional leaders Tuesday. “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 vow 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 came up with a creative solution to address the concerns of progressives in their caucus. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Tuesday night that the House would 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 also passed a bill Wednesday that would add seven days of paid sick leave to the deal, on a much closer 221-207 vote with three Republicans voting yea. Both bills will now 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 going to force it down their throats at the behest of this administration?" he asked.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said in an interview that “it is critical” that the Senate approves the House-passed labor deal, characterizing a rail shutdown as "basically the same as the economy shutting down.”
Buttigieg said Wednesday that a rail strike would affect just about every part of the U.S. economy almost immediately, from drinking water to agriculture to the auto industry.
“This is not a time when we can afford to have a lot of maneuvers, any kind of long and winding road or any kind of politics introduced here. The American economy ... really cannot handle the consequences of a shutdown, and we can’t let it even get close,” he said.
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.
After the House vote Wednesday, Biden urged the Senate to "move quickly."
"Without action this week, disruptions to our auto supply chains, our ability to move food to tables and our ability to remove hazardous waste from gasoline refineries will begin," he said.
White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Tuesday aboard Air Force One that Biden "is confident that we will not have a rail strike."
"That is what he’s confident about," she said. "He’s confident that we’re going to get to a resolution on this."