Congress Looks to Avert Rail Strike

Congress Looks to Avert Rail Strike

President Biden met with congressional leaders Tuesday morning.
By Yuval Rosenberg and Michael Rainey
Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Happy Tuesday! The Senate just passed legislation to protect same-sex and interracial marriage. The bipartisan, 61-36 vote, saw all Democrats joined by 12 Republicans in support of the bill, which will now go back to the House, where it is expected to pass before the end of the year. Also, the U.S. men’s soccer team advanced to the knockout stage of the World Cup, coming through with a 1-0 win in a game they had to win to stay alive in the tournament. Next up: the Netherlands.

Here’s what else is happening.

Biden, Congressional Leaders Look to Avert Rail Strike

President Joe Biden met with congressional leaders at the White House Tuesday to discuss the legislative agenda for the rest of the year — a list that suddenly has an urgent new item on it: averting a costly national rail strike.

"There's a lot to do, including resolving the train strike," Biden said. "And Congress, I think, has to act to prevent it. It's not an easy call, but I think we have to do it. The economy is at risk."

Congressional leaders of both parties said that they would work quickly to pass legislation to avert a strike, fearing that a work stoppage could break supply chains and wreak havoc on the economy, disrupting activity totaling billions of dollars a day and adding to inflationary pressures.

"Tomorrow morning we will have a bill on the floor," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) told reporters after the White House meeting. "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. Water will not be safe. Product will not be going to market. We could lose 750,000 jobs, some of them union jobs. That must be avoided."

How we got here: Rail employees have been pushing to win benefits that workers in many other sectors already enjoy, like paid sick leave and regular schedules. "Many have complained that extended time on the road and long stretches of on-call work make it difficult to see a doctor for an illness or injury, or to be present at family milestones like a child’s birthday," The New York Times explains. As the Associated Press reported recently, the railroad operators have argued that, over decades of negotiations, the unions have agreed to forego paid sick leave in favor of higher wages and more generous short-term disability benefits

The White House helped broker a September agreement between the two sides that included a 24% wage increase over five years and one additional paid day off along with the ability to attend medical visits without being penalized. But four of the 12 railworker unions have rejected that deal, arguing it does not go far enough to address their concerns.

Congress now appears set to impose the September agreement via legislation. Freight rail workers can go on strike as of 12:01 a.m. on December 9, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said Tuesday that the deadline for legislative action is sooner given that suppliers could halt shipments of some critical items earlier if they expect the standoff to go unresolved.

The bottom line: Time is running short, and while Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Marco Rubio (RF-FL) have come out against imposing the current deal, Congress looks likely to pass a bill averting a potential rail strike and any major economic disruption. "Congress has voted to stop or end rail strikes in every prior instance going back to the 1960s, and it is difficult to envision a different outcome this time," analysts at Goldman Sachs wrote in a note to clients.

Lawmakers Aiming for a Comprehensive Spending Bill, but Hurdles Remain

After meeting with President Biden at the White House to discuss the federal budget, congressional leaders said Tuesday that they plan to work on a comprehensive spending bill for 2023.

"We all agreed that we would rather not have a CR," Pelosi told reporters, referring to a continuing resolution, a stop-gap spending bill that would freeze spending at last year’s levels. The government is currently being funded by a continuing resolution passed in September that expires on December 16.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) echoed that sentiment, saying that Congress needs to pass an omnibus spending package in December.

"We had a really good meeting," McConnell said. "Laid out the challenges that we’re all collectively facing here. I think there’s widespread agreement that we’d be better off with an omnibus than a CR, but there are some significant hurdles to get over to do that," he added.

In search of a topline: One of those hurdles is agreeing on how much the government will spend next year. House Democrats are calling for $1.6 trillion in discretionary spending, an increase of about $100 billion over last year, but Republicans aren’t interested in raising non-defense spending levels. McConnell said that Republican leaders are focused on increasing defense spending and providing more aid to Ukraine.

"Their insistence on continuing to request astronomical increases on the non-defense domestic side is a sticking point," McConnell said. "So that’s where we are and we’re going to keep talking to each other and hope to work this out."

Schumer agreed that the meeting was productive. "We each laid out our criteria for the omnibus," he told reporters. "Obviously they’re different, but we’ve agreed to sit down as early as tomorrow, the four appropriators and the four leaders, to try and resolve the issue and avoid any government shutdown."

The CR option: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who is seeking to become the next speaker in January, also said he would prefer to pass an omnibus spending package – but only if certain conditions are met. Some Republicans in the House are calling for lower spending levels overall, with more funding for border security, and may push for a continuing resolution that runs into early next year if they can’t get what they want.

"I have no problem coming back in January and getting it right," McCarthy said.

Some critics, though, doubt that McCarthy really wants to tackle a funding fight – complete with the threat of a government shutdown – in the first days of the new Congress. "McCarthy says this, but definitely not what he wants," writes Punchbowl’s Jake Sherman. "[P]utting a shutdown threat in the early days of the new majority is strategically idiotic."

Still, although it may not be the preferred option for congressional leaders, there may not be enough time to reach an agreement on a comprehensive spending package. Pelosi said lawmakers would get to work on a topline spending number and move on from there, but there’s no guarantee that they will reach a final agreement. "I think it’s really important for people to know that if we don’t have an option, we may have to have a year-long CR," she told reporters.

Numbers of the Day

$11.3 Billion: Consumers spent a record $11.3 billion on online shopping Monday, according to Adobe Analytics. "With oversupply and a softening consumer spending environment, retailers made the right call this season to drive demand through heavy discounting," analyst Vivek Pandya of Adobe Digital Insights said in a statement. "It spurred online spending to levels that were higher than expected, and reinforced e-commerce as a major channel to drive volume and capture consumer interest."

6 Million: This year’s flu season is more severe than in past years — and it is intensifying, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC estimates in a new weekly report that, as of November 19, there have been at least 6.2 million illnesses, along with 53,000 hospitalizations and 2,900 deaths from flu. The agency said that the hospitalization rate is the highest it has been at this point in the year since 2010-2011.

Earlier this month, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Children’s Hospital Association sent a letter to President Biden and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra urging them to declare the surge of pediatric respiratory illnesses, including flu and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a national emergency so that health care providers could access emergency funding and have flexibility to help ease hospital capacity issues. The administration has resisted such calls.

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