Congressional Leaders Say They Will Act to Prevent Rail Strike

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WASHINGTON — Democratic and Republican leaders in Congress vowed on Tuesday to pass legislation averting a nationwide rail strike, saying they agree with President Biden that a work stoppage just days before Christmas would disrupt shipping and deal a devastating blow to the nation’s economy.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, said after a meeting at the White House with Mr. Biden and their Republican counterparts that they would act quickly to move legislation through the chambers.

“Tomorrow morning we will have a bill on the floor,” Ms. Pelosi said. “I don’t like going against the ability of unions to strike, but weighing the equities, we must avoid a strike. Jobs will be lost. Even union jobs will be lost.”

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, told reporters after the meeting that “we’re going to need to pass a bill” to avert a railway strike, suggesting that Republicans did not intend to try to block such a move.

During his meeting with congressional leaders Tuesday morning, Mr. Biden acknowledged that it was “not an easy call” for Congress to intervene, but he said it was necessary because the economy was “at risk” in the labor dispute.

Mr. Biden’s request that Congress step in underscores the recognition that a rail strike could have a devastating effect on the fragile economic recovery after the coronavirus pandemic. Frozen train lines would snap supply chains for commodities like lumber, coal and chemicals and delay deliveries of automobiles and other consumer goods, driving up prices even further.

The last time that Congress intervened to settle a nationwide rail dispute was in 1992, when the International Association of Machinists launched a nationwide strike. Congress stepped in to stop the strike two days later, passing legislation that was signed by President George Bush the same day.

Congress has the authority to intervene in a variety of ways, including by enacting a deal directly through legislation — whether it was the agreement that some unions already have voted down, or a less generous proposal that a presidential board issued over the summer.

Ms. Pelosi said that House members would vote on the tentative agreement that Mr. Biden’s administration helped negotiate between rail companies and the unions earlier this year. Eight unions voted to support that agreement, but four did not, keeping alive the threat of a strike.

Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the House minority leader, said after Tuesday’s meeting that “I think it will pass.”

Mr. Schumer said that he was optimistic the Senate would vote quickly to do the same.

Mr. Biden met with the lawmakers to discuss a range of issues facing them in the coming days, including funding the government, providing support for Ukraine and protecting same-sex marriage.

Mr. Biden and his Democratic allies on Capitol Hill are hoping to make the most of the next few weeks, while the party still controls both chambers of Congress. When the new Congress begins early next year, Republicans will have a slim majority in the House, giving them control over the agenda there.

The president is a staunch union backer who has previously argued against congressional intervention in railway labor disputes, arguing that it unfairly interferes with union bargaining efforts. In 1992, he was one of only six senators to vote against legislation that ended another bitter strike by rail workers.

The decision to embrace congressional action as a solution to the labor dispute is a gamble that threatens to anger some of his biggest supporters in the labor community.

Though many union members are likely to be upset by the prospect of congressional intervention, some union leaders may quietly prefer that intervention to come in December rather than in January, when the House comes under Republican control and may be more likely to back the skimpier deal.

The agreement voted down by several rail unions earlier this year would raise wages by nearly 25 percent between 2020, when the last contract expired, and 2024. But it has proved contentious among rail workers who argue that it does not go far enough to resolve what they say are punishing schedules that upend their personal lives and their health.

The American Trucking Associations, an industry group, recently estimated that relying on trucks to work around a rail stoppage would require more than 450,000 additional vehicles — a practical impossibility given the shortage of equipment and drivers.

The railroad industry immediately threw its support behind Mr. Biden’s call for legislation.

“No one benefits from a rail work stoppage — not our customers, not rail employees and not the American economy,” Ian Jefferies, the chief executive of the Association of American Railroads, which represents major carriers, said in a statement. “Now is the appropriate time for Congress to pass legislation.”

Four of the 12 unions representing more than 100,000 employees at large freight rail carriers have voted down the tentative agreement that the Biden administration helped broker in September.

Some workers have long suspected that Congress would intervene rather than allow them to strike, a suspicion that Mr. Biden’s labor secretary, Martin J. Walsh, heightened during an interview with CNN this month, when he said Congress would have to take action if the two sides could not reach a deal on their own. It was unclear whether Mr. Walsh was speaking hypothetically or urging intervention.

Later on Tuesday, the Senate is also scheduled to vote on legislation to provide federal protections for same-sex marriages. If the bill passes, the House will still have to vote on it before the end of the current Congress and send it to Mr. Biden’s desk for his signature.

In addition, lawmakers face a mid-December deadline to fund the federal government. A failure to agree on a temporary spending package could shut down parts of the federal government.

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