WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden hosted a rare meeting of the four House and Senate leaders Tuesday at the White House, where Republicans and Democrats agreed to pass a bill to avert a nationwide rail workers’ strike before the U.S. economy could start to feel its effects as soon as this weekend.
The meeting with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, both of California, was a last-minute addition to Biden’s public schedule. It also marked the first time the group known as “the Big Four” has met with Biden since Republicans narrowly won control of the House earlier this month, and Democrats held on to the Senate despite strong political headwinds.
The meeting Tuesday was not partisan or contentious even as the power dynamics in Washington are set to change, according to attendees.
“It was a very positive meeting, and it was candid,” Pelosi told reporters at the Capitol after the meeting. “But from a timing standpoint, right now what we need to do is avoid the strike.”
McConnell struck a similar note: “We had a really good meeting, and laid out the challenges that we’re all collectively facing here.”
A rail strike could formally begin on Dec. 9 if no agreement is reached between unions and rail companies. But the effects of it could be felt before then. Freight rail companies are required to alert customers about a potential strike a week ahead of time, to give them time to make contingency plans.
Congress can intervene using its power through the Constitution’s Commerce Clause to pass legislation ending a strike or a lockout, and to set terms of the agreements between the unions and the carriers. In this case, Congress appears poised to enact a tentative labor agreement that was approved in September by some — but not all — of the sector’s major labor unions.
Pelosi said she planned to bring a bill to the House floor Wednesday morning.
“It’s not everything I would like to see. I think that we should have paid sick leave,” she said.
“And I don’t like going against the ability of unions to strike. But weighing the equities, we must avoid a strike,” Pelosi added.
Both Pelosi and McCarthy said Tuesday that they believed the rail strike bill had the votes it needed to pass the House.
But in the Senate, where it only takes one objecting senator to hold up a bill, the emergency rail strike legislation could face new hurdles.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has already announced he will oppose the bill.
“Just because Congress has the authority to impose a heavy-handed solution does not mean we should,” Rubio said in a statement Tuesday.
An unlikely ally for Rubio on other side of the political spectrum may be Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, who criticized the agreement when it was first reached in September. On Tuesday, he refused to say whether he would support the bill.
“Workers all over this country who work for the railroads, people who are working at dangerous jobs in inclement weather, have zero paid sick leave. That is outrageous,” Sanders told reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday.
“I think it’s incumbent upon Congress to do everything that it can to protect these workers to make sure that the railroad starts treating them with the respect and the dignity that they deserve,” he added.
Either Rubio or Sanders, or any other senator, could decide to mount a filibuster of the bill, potentially holding it up for days under Senate rules.
McConnell declined to speculate Tuesday on how many Republicans would back the bill.
“You’ll have to ask our members,” he told reporters. “I think some may be inclined to vote against it, and others are arguing that the economic price of doing that is too great.”
The House is expected to pass a version of the bill Wednesday morning. After that, the timeline becomes more difficult to predict, given the flexibility afforded senators under the chamber’s debate and filibuster rules.