U.S. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy attends a meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden (R) and other leaders of Congress at the White House on November 29, 2022 in Washington, DC to review legislative priorities through the end of 2022 discuss.
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden hosted a rare meeting of the four leaders of the House and Senate at the White House on Tuesday, where Republicans and Democrats agreed to pass legislation to avert a nationwide railroad workers’ strike before the U.S. economy its effects could begin to be felt as early as this weekend.
Meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, DN.Y., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, both out California, was a last-minute addition to Biden’s public schedule. It was also the first time the group known as “The Big Four” had met with Biden since Republicans narrowly gained control of the House of Representatives earlier this month and Democrats clung to the Senate despite strong political headwinds.
Tuesday’s meeting was neither partisan nor contentious, although attendees said the power dynamics in Washington are set to change.
“It was a very positive meeting and it was open,” Pelosi told reporters at the Capitol after the meeting. “But from a time point of view, we have to avoid the strike at the moment.”
McConnell struck a similar tone: “We had a really good meeting and laid out the challenges that we all face together here.”
A rail strike could officially start on December 9 if no agreement is reached between unions and rail companies. But the effects of that were felt before that. Rail freight companies are obliged to give customers a week’s notice of a possible strike to give them time to make contingency plans.
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Congress can step in and use its powers under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause to pass legislation to end a strike or lockout and set the terms of agreements between unions and carriers. In that case, Congress appears poised to pass a tentative collective bargaining agreement, which was endorsed by some – but not all – of the sector’s major unions in September.
Pelosi said she plans to bring a bill to the floor of the house on Wednesday morning.
“It’s not all I’d like to see. I think we should have paid for sick leave,” she said.
“And I don’t like taking action against unions’ ability to strike. But as we weigh stocks, we need to avoid a strike,” Pelosi added.
Both Pelosi and McCarthy said Tuesday they believed the railroad strike law had the votes it took to get through the house.
But in the Senate, where it takes only one dissenting senator to stop a bill, emergency strike legislation could face new hurdles down the road.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has previously announced that he will oppose the bill.
“Just because Congress has the authority to enforce a cumbersome solution doesn’t mean we should,” Rubio said in a statement Tuesday.
An unlikely ally for Rubio on the other side of the political spectrum could be Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who criticized the deal when it was first reached in September. On Tuesday, he declined to say whether he would support the bill.
“Workers across the country who work for the railroads, people who work dangerous jobs in inclement weather, don’t have paid sick leave. This is outrageous,” Sanders told reporters at the Capitol on Tuesday.
“I think it’s up to Congress to do everything in its power to protect these workers and make sure the railroad treats them with the respect and dignity they deserve,” he added.
Either Rubio or Sanders or any other senator could decide to mount a filibuster of the bill and potentially hold it up for days under Senate rules.
McConnell declined to speculate Tuesday about how many Republicans would support the bill.
“You have to ask our members,” he told reporters. “I think some tend to vote against and others argue that the economic price of doing so is too high.”
The House of Representatives is expected to pass a version of the bill Wednesday morning. After that, it becomes more difficult to predict the timeline given the flexibility afforded to senators under the chamber’s debate and filibuster rules.