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Biden rallies lawmakers to act to avert rail strike ahead of looming deadline

Congress has the authority to block a strike, but doing so would require bridging fundamental divides between the parties days before railways are set to grind to a halt.
A person works at a Union Pacific Intermodal Terminal rail yard
A Union Pacific Intermodal Terminal rail yard in Los Angeles on Nov. 21. Mario Tama / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden stepped up calls for Congress to avert a looming rail strike in a meeting at the White House with top lawmakers Tuesday, warning that the economy was at risk if they failed to act in the next few days.

Talks between railway workers and their employers appear to have stalled, making the prospect of a Dec. 9 strike more imminent. Shipments of crucial materials, like chemicals used to treat drinking water, are set to start winding down this week, industry leaders have warned, after some railway unions rejected an agreement between labor leaders and railway companies. 

“Congress, I think, has to act appropriately. It’s not an easy call, but I think we have to do it," Biden said before the meeting. "The economy is at risk."

Congress has the authority to block a strike and impose a labor agreement on the workers under a 1926 law intended to prevent the interruption of interstate commerce in labor disputes. But doing so would require bridging fundamental divides over Democrats’ long-held support for unions and Republicans’ support for businesses in less than 10 days.

After the meeting with Biden, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said he would work with Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to get a deal done as possible. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the House would vote on a bill Wednesday.

"The leader and I are going to have to get together and try to get that done, and we are working on it," Schumer told reporters when he was asked whether he had enough votes to pass legislation.

McConnell echoed Schumer, saying Congress needed to pass a bill.

Biden got directly involved Monday, saying Congress should immediately pass legislation to adopt a tentative agreement reached between labor leaders and railway operators in September — but rejected by four of the 12 unions — to avert a “potentially crippling national rail shutdown” that would “devastate” the economy.

It was a shift in messaging for the White House, which for weeks has said the best solution would be for the workers and employers to reach a resolution on their own by adopting the September deal, which the administration helped broker.

Congress likely to vote

Companies across a variety of industries, including retailers, farmers, oil producers and chemical makers, have increasingly raised alarms in recent weeks about the massive disruption a strike would cause across the economy.

Shipping containers and rail cars sit in a Union Pacific Intermodal Terminal rail yard
Shipping containers and rail cars at a Union Pacific Intermodal Terminal rail yard in Los Angeles on Nov. 21.Mario Tama / Getty Images file

But so far, there has been little momentum in Congress to pass any legislation to avert a strike as lawmakers return from the Thanksgiving recess with an already packed schedule. 

Congress can take several steps to prevent a rail strike, which it has done 18 times since the 1960s. It could extend the so-called cooling-off period, giving the parties more time to try to reach a voluntary agreement before workers can strike. It could also impose a labor agreement on the workers similar to the one already agreed to by labor leaders and carriers or make modifications to the agreement that could be more or less favorable to workers or their employers. 

Pelosi said the House would vote this week on the legislation Biden is calling for, which wouldn’t make any changes to the current agreement. 

“This week, the House will take up a bill adopting the Tentative Agreement — with no poison pills or changes to the negotiated terms — and send it to the Senate,” she said in a statement following Biden’s.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., left the White House meeting critical of the need to pass legislation but saying he thought it would pass.

“I think it will pass, but it’s unfortunate this is how we’re running our economy today," McCarthy said.

The bigger obstacle may lie with the Senate, where Democrats and Republicans will need to come together to get the 60 votes needed to avoid a filibuster. 

For Democrats, imposing a contract on workers would seem to fly in the face of the pro-union positions many have spent their careers advocating for and risk upsetting their key constituency of union members and labor leaders. 

But it could also provide an opportunity for Democrats to step in and give additional benefits to the rail workers, like paid sick days, although that would likely make it more difficult to get Republican support.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., blocked legislation in September that would have averted a potential strike at the time before a tentative agreement was reached, arguing that rail workers needed better sick leave.

As for Republicans, the prospect of a strike gives them an opportunity to blast Biden for his handling of the economy and fan the flames of a potential economic disruption that could hurt Democrats in the next election. It could also give them an opening to weaken the contract brokered with labor leaders, making it more favorable to the industry. 

Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Commerce Committee, sounded an optimistic tone.

"The president says he is going to ask Congress to act, and I would expect Congress to support that request,” he said.

Possible National Rail Strike Already Causing Cancellation On Passenger Rail Routes
Workers service the tracks at the Metra/BNSF railroad yard in Chicago on Sept. 13. Scott Olson / Getty Images file

No ‘time to dither around’

The companies have warned that a shutdown of the railways would quickly result in cities’ running out of clean drinking water, shortages of fuel and farmers’ being unable to get feed for their livestock. It would also cause manufacturing across a variety of sectors to grind to a halt and result in backlogs at the ports with trains unable to transport cargo off ships. 

“If you look at the national harm that would come around even by the build-up of a strike, it is simply untenable, and we are well past time for having Congress step in and resolve this,” said John Drake, the vice president of transportation, infrastructure and supply chain policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“They aren’t going to have a choice,” he said. “This is not something where we have time to dither around with it. Congressional leadership is going to have to step in and take action, and we are going to need bipartisan support, and frankly, we have run out of time for political games. We need a solution now.”

More than 400 industry groups signed on to a letter Monday imploring congressional leaders to act and warning that a strike would result in “certain economic destruction.” The White House estimates as many as 765,000 people in the U.S. could be put out of work in the first two weeks of a strike.

"The only thing standing in the way of ensuring that the American economy doesn't take a major hit as a consequence of a catastrophic rail strike is the United States Congress," Mike Sommers, the head of the American Petroleum Institute, said in a call with reporters. "We need to make sure that the United States Congress acts on this as quickly as possible to take away any threat of that economic calamity from occurring."