Democrats and Republicans have locked in a deal to vote on rail legislation to avert a damaging shutdown with votes starting “very soon,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced on the Senate floor Thursday.
Pressure has been mounting on Senate leaders to clear legislation for President Joe Biden’s signature to avert a rail shutdown amid concerns over the economic danger posed by a strike.
The House passed the tentative rail agreement on Wednesday. Leaders have been racing to see if they can reach a deal to pass the legislation Thursday – a tough task since they would need all 100 senators to agree to schedule that vote and any one senator can object and drag out the process.
Senate GOP Whip John Thune was hopeful a deal would be reached Thursday, and explained some further details about the current hang-ups, which include at what threshold to set the amendment votes: a simple majority or 60. The two amendment votes that are expected include Sen. Bernie Sanders’ amendment on adding paid sick leave for rail workers and GOP Sen. Dan Sullivan’s amendment for a 60-day extension for the unions and rail to continue negotiating.
Without congressional action, a rail strike could become a reality as early as December 9, causing shortages, spiking prices and halting factory production. It could also disrupt commuter rail services for up to seven million travelers a day and the transportation of 6,300 carloads of food and farm products a day, among other items, according to a collection of business groups.
One potential complication in the effort to pass a bill is a push by progressives to add a provision to the agreement to increase paid sick leave.
In a separate vote on Wednesday, the House voted to add the provision to the rail that would increase the number of paid sick days from one to seven.
The additional sick leave provision was added at the insistence of progressive members of the House who had threatened to scuttle the rail agreement bill if sick leave wasn’t included. However, it was added using an arcane tactic that will enable the Senate to pass the original rail agreement without including the sick leave provision.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said on Thursday that the Senate “cannot leave until we get the job done” on legislation to avert a rail shutdown. He noted that one of his “top priorities” is holding a vote “to provide rail workers with the paid sick leave many of them have asked for.” He said he hopes some GOP senators will join Democrats in favor of it. In fact, a handful of conservative Republican senators, like Marco Rubio of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri, have expressed openness to the sick leave provision. But it’s not clear if it could get the 60 votes that would likely be required for it to pass.
Thune said he expects to know “pretty soon” whether a rail deal will come together Thursday.
“They are still working, I think, on final amendment text language and negotiating back and forth on time agreements and vote thresholds and things like that,” he told CNN in the Capitol.
Asked if he thinks it will come together today, he said, “Well, it remains to be seen. I think we’ll know that pretty soon.”
Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell said “hope so” when asked if he expects a rail deal to be reached today.
Since senators typically leave for the weekend on Thursdays and with concerns that the impact of a potential strike could be felt as soon as this week, there’s a push to get the bill done by Thursday. And many senators believe that a vote in the timeframe is very possible.
This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.