President Biden met with congressional leaders of both parties on Tuesday to discuss lame-duck session priorities, including passing legislation to avert a looming rail strike that could devastate the U.S. economy.
‘I asked for Congress, whether they’d be willing to come in and talk about what we’re going to do between now and Christmas in terms of legislation,’ Biden said at the top of the meeting. ‘There’s a lot to do in resolving the rail strike,’ Biden said.
‘Congress has to act to prevent it. It’s not an easy call, but I think we have to do it – the economy’s at risk.’
Biden also said the group would be talking about government funding, which expires December 16.
‘We’re going to work together to fund, I hope, we’re going to fund the government, Covid and the war in Ukraine – all controversial and consequential issues. And we’re going to find other areas of common ground I hope, because the American people want us to work together.’
‘I’m going to stop there and get started because I’m sure this is going to go very quickly and everyone’s going to agree – all kidding aside, we’re here to get work done,’ Biden concluded before press was ushered out of the room.
Attending the meeting were House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-NY.., Vice President Kamala Harris, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain and others.
Biden met with congressional leaders of both parties on Tuesday to discuss lame-duck session priorities, including passing legislation to avert a looming rail strike that could devastate the U.S. economy
‘I’m going to stop there and get started because I’m sure this is going to go very quickly and everyone’s going to agree – all kidding aside, we’re here to get work done,’ Biden concluded before press was ushered out of the room
A looming rail strike on December 9 could cost the U.S. economy $2 billion per day and leave some 765,000 out of work. Biden on Monday evening called on Congress to impose the tentative agreement between rail workers and operators on the remaining four of 12 rail unions that have rejected it.
The September tentative deal reached by labor leaders offered a 24 percent pay raise for rail workers, health care benefits and medical leave. Eight rail unions have ratified their deals and four rail unions are back at the negotiating table, their rank-and-file members dissatisfied with the benefits negotiated by leaders.
The addition of paid sick leave days to the tentative agreement has been a sticking pint.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi responded immediately to say the House would take up a bill to avert the possible strike this week.
‘We must recognize that railroads have been selling out to Wall Street to boost their bottom lines, making obscene profits while demanding more and more from railroad workers,’ she said in a statement.
‘We are reluctant to bypass the standard ratification process for the Tentative Agreement — but we must act to prevent a catastrophic nationwide rail strike.’
‘We’re going to work together to fund, I hope, we’re going to fund the government, Covid and the war in Ukraine – all controversial and consequential issues,’ Biden said
She added that the House would take up the agreement with no changes, including to sick leave policy.
Biden, a staunch union backer, has in the past argued against congressional intervention in railway labor disputes, claiming that doing so interferes with union bargaining efforts.
Matt Weaver, the legislative director for Ohio for the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, one union that has rejected the deal, told CNN that rail workers do not want to strike, but would be much more likely to vote for a deal if Biden called on Congress to add paid sick leave.
‘We want, in this day and age of high inflation and a pandemic around illness, we would like paid sick days,’ he said.
‘We don’t want to strike. We want what’s just,’ Weaver added.
Party leaders and factions are competing for priorities with limited floor time to move – with key ‘must pass’ legislation also set to soak up time and attention. Democrats have just weeks left with unified control of Congress, although their Senate majority will continue into the new year.
Legislation to protect same-sex and interracial marriages got a boost this month when a dozen Senate Republicans voted to advance a bill – signaling it could clear a Republican filibuster to become law if it gets priority.
Democrats pushed the bill after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade this summer, with some lawmakers warning same-sex marriage protections could be the next to fall.
Legislation to reform the Electoral Count Act, with its complex provisions spelling out the role of Congress in counting the Electoral College votes for president, could also sneak through to passage while Democrats are in control.
A version by Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California and Republican Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney – who is soon to depart Congress – already passed the House, and 16 Republicans are on board with a Senate version.
Legislative priorities like those will have to contend for attention with action just to keep the government running, with the latest continuing resolution set to expire December 16th.
Lawmakers either must pass a new one or pass a broader ‘omnibus’ bill to fund the government. Without action, parts of the government would shut down right before Christmas. Pushing through such large-scale legislation would require buy-in from Senate Republicans, some of whom are retiring.
The impasse could easily run right up against Christmas and New Year’s, when lawmakers are usually desperate to get home.
That is one reason Democratic leaders are contemplating passing an increase in the $31.4 trillion statutory debt ceiling. Although the government is not set to run up against the limit immediately, by acting now Democrats could try to snatch away some leverage from Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who hopes to be Speaker.
If they don’t, a high-stakes fight with a fiscal shutdown looming could be a top feature of next year.
President Joe Biden also wants to push through $40 billion in Ukraine funding before the changeover, after McCarthy said Republicans would not provide a ‘blank check’ for Ukraine aid.
That follows reports that nine months of security packages have strained the arsenals and supplies of the U.S. and NATO allies.
That is on top of the National Defense Authorization Act, which is considered must-pass legislation, and which each year sets the direction of U.S. defense policy.
Sen. Mark Warner, R-Va., said Tuesday Electoral Count Act legislation would likely need to be attached to another ‘must-pass’ bill – either the NDAA or the government funding bill.
Biden also hopes for $9 billion in COVID funding, but Republicans balked last time he tried to get additional funding.
Democrats also are considering another push to try to reinstate the expired assault weapons ban following mass shootings in Chesapeake, Va. and Colorado Springs, Colo. separated by mere days.
Biden has been vague on the timing for any push, having said repeatedly he will demand action.
‘I’m going to try to get rid of assault weapons,’ he said on his Thanksgiving trip to Nantucket. When asked specifically if he’d try to push Congress to make progress on the issue in the lame duck, he added, ‘I’m going to do it whenever – I’ve got to make that assessment as I get in and start counting votes.’