Democratic and Republican leaders lined up Tuesday behind President Joe Biden's call for Congress to head off a potential freight rail strike, with just days left before a threatened shutdown could start to affect supplies for critical resources such as drinking water.
But dissenters from both parties threatened to slow the action in the Senate, saying it gives short shrift to rail workers unhappy with the deal's lack of the paid sick leave they're demanding.
Both Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that Congress needs to act soon - well before the official Dec. 9 deadline, considering that certain industries will begin sidelining freight shipments as soon as this weekend in preparation for a shutdown.
"We're going to need to pass a bill," McConnell told reporters upon arriving back at the Capitol from a meeting at the White House with Biden and other congressional leaders.
But because of the way the Senate works, one senator can still gum up the works and force leadership to hold a series of long procedural votes to make any progress. One Republican, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, said he plans to vote no on any deal the workers don't support.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a vocal critic of the freight railroads' time off policies that many rank-and-file workers oppose, said Tuesday he will push for a vote that aims to give rail workers more paid sick leave.
"If your question is will I demand a vote to make sure that workers in the rail industry have what tens of millions of Americans have ... guaranteed paid sick leave? The answer is yes," Sanders said.
"I appreciate the work the president and the secretary of labor have done but at the end of the day you're looking at a terrible example of outrageous corporate greed with a railroad industry that's making record-breaking profits, $21 billion in the last nine months alone," Sanders said. "I'm going to do everything I can to see that these workers are treated by these railroads with respect and dignity."
Corey Rosenbusch, president and CEO of The Fertilizer Institute, said a strike "effectively starts this weekend" without congressional action because fertilizer companies must prepare for a work stoppage about five days in advance.
On Monday, Biden urged Congress to pass legislation to force the tentative agreement into effect. It represents a significant rift between labor and Biden, who has resisted the move for months and described himself in a statement Monday as a "proud pro-labor President." But he said the economic costs - up to 765,000 jobs, lost access to chemicals for clean drinking water, and farmers and ranchers unable to feed their livestock - would be too great to bear.
The Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employes, one of the three unions that voted against the tentative agreement, said in a statement that it disagrees with Biden's proposed path.
"A call to Congress to act immediately to pass legislation that adopts tentative agreements that exclude paid sick leave ignores the railroad workers' concerns," the union said in its statement. "It both denies railroad workers their right to strike while also denying them of the benefit they would likely otherwise obtain if they were not denied their right to strike."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the House is prepared to vote to enshrine Biden's ask this week. Many Democratic senators are calling for a speedy vote as well. But Republicans in the Senate remain a wildcard.
Rubio tweeted that "railways & workers should go back & negotiate a deal that the workers,not just the union bosses,will accept."
"But if Congress is forced to do it, I will not vote to impose a deal that doesn't have the support of the rail workers," he said.
Senators from both parties on Tuesday expressed support for Biden's plan, or said that a freight rail shutdown would have wide-reaching economic consequences that compel Congress to act.
Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the longest-serving Republican senator, said Tuesday that he's ready to act to impose a tentative rail labor agreement to avoid an economically devastating rail shutdown, as Biden asked Congress to do.
"I'm ready to act on that particular subject because it would be devastating to agriculture if we don't pass something," Grassley said in an interview. Congress "better act by December the 9th, and maybe sooner, it would be better if they did. … We would enforce what's been agreed to already," he said.
In a nod to the time crunch, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said that "we need to get this done sooner than the 9th, the 8th or the 7th, we need to get this done sooner because services are going to begin to shut down in the near-term," adding: "I hope we'll act this week."
Carper said he's supportive of Biden's call for congressional action, arguing that the majority of unions involved in the negotiations voted to approve the tentative agreement. Carper said Labor Secretary Marty Walsh indicated to him that the agreement reached in September was the best possible outcome.
Rail worker unions and rail operators have been bargaining for years on a labor agreement, with major sticking points around paid sick leave, on-call policies and time off. Biden and Walsh in September brokered a tentative agreement between the workers unions and operators to avert a then-imminent strike and shutdown of the freight rail system.
Workers won significant pay raises and other victories in the tentative deal but paid sick leave was not one of them, and three of the 12 major unions rejected it in rank-and-file votes, teeing up a complete rail shutdown by Dec. 9 at the earliest.
The House does not appear to be as much of an obstacle. Transportation Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) has been a vocal critic of the railroads, arguing that the tentative agreement did not go far enough to address quality-of-life concerns for railroad workers. But in a statement on Tuesday, DeFazio indicated that he would not oppose Biden's plan to enshrine the tentative agreement into law.
"Congressional action appears necessary to avoid a rail stoppage, but the quality of life issues remain," DeFazio said in the statement. "The railroads will keep losing employees and rail service will keep declining until they invest in their essential workers."
Some House Republicans have said they plan to support a compromise rail agreement, giving Pelosi some wiggle room if certain progressives in the House vote against the tentative contract agreement.
Congress hasn't imposed a labor agreement on railroads since 1991. If it the tentative agreement becomes law, it means changes to sick leave policy in line with what workers want will have to wait, or be addressed by Congress at a later date.
Tanya Snyder, Nick Ziadwadiek and Burgess Everett contributed to this report.