Senators were heading into a crucial lunch Thursday with two of President Joe Biden's Cabinet officials as lawmakers struggle to carve out a way forward that would avoid a freight rail strike, the impacts of which will start to be felt this weekend.
Earlier in the day Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer vowed that the Senate won't leave for the week until a freight rail agreement is reached, but exactly what that looks like - or whether the Senate can act in time - is in question.
"The Senate cannot leave until we get the job done," Schumer said on the Senate floor. "And Democrats will keep working with Republicans to find a path forward that everyone can support."
Senators from both parties had already been discussing potentially taking two votes - one on a bill that would impose a contract agreement, and another that would tack on seven paid sick days to that agreement. On Thursday afternoon another possibility emerged: a third vote on extending the cooling off period, which expires on Dec. 9.
Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) said the two parties are discussing an amendment vote that would extend the current cooling off period. The freight railroads and unions have not made progress in recent negotiations and the current cooling off period, during which work stoppages are prohibited, expires next week.
"There's conversation about how to get these amendments queued up and voted on, today," Thune said.
Some Republican senators, like Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who say they do not support enshrining the contract agreement into law but are considering whether to support the sick leave expansion say they support extending the cooling off period.
But the Transportation Trades Department, an umbrella union group for the AFL-CIO, on Thursday said they don't support a cooling off period extension.
"Freight railroads have made it clear that they are not interested in further negotiations with rail unions. Thus, any proposal to further extend the cooling off period would yield zero progress. Rather, an extension would simply allow the railroads to maintain their status quo operations while prolonging the workforce's suffering," Greg Regan and Shari Semelsberger, president and secretary-treasurer of TTD, said in a joint statement.
As of Thursday morning, Schumer has not been able to come up with a time agreement to quickly pass legislation. Any one senator could slow down the process if they choose, and railroads will begin shutting down certain shipments as soon as this weekend in anticipation of a work stoppage that could begin on Dec. 9.
Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) spoke to Schumer on Thursday morning about the issue and said the Democratic majority is "waiting on a signal from the Republicans."
Both parties are expected to hash out a potential series of votes at lunch and leaders said they hope to finish a deal on Thursday. Schumer said Thursday that voting on the additional paid sick leave bill is a top priority.
"I support paid sick leave, my Democratic colleagues support paid sick leave and we want to see it included in the package," he said.
Durbin said he would support the base agreement if it didn't include sick leave - the position taken by President Joe Biden.
"The administration has taken a pretty strong and even controversial position because of Biden's close relationship with labor that I agree with. There's too many jobs, too many businesses" at risk, he said.
Schumer has previously said that he considers a vote on adding sick leave a top priority.
Any votes on Thursday will require an agreement from all 100 senators to proceed. Otherwise it will take Schumer several days to set up a final vote on the rail deal.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Labor Secretary Marty Walsh will trek to Capitol Hill Thursday to help grease the wheels for enshrining a tentative freight rail contract into law by this weekend.
"My main concern is to make sure the senators understand the implications of any kind of delay here," Buttigieg said Thursday morning on MSNBC. "Really that bill needs to reach the president's desk this week or by this weekend, in order to avoid some of the initial effects to our economy."
But any bill that passes the Senate will need at least 10 GOP votes even if all Democrats vote in favor, and though Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he supports moving quickly, it's not clear how much of his caucus will go along.
Asked whether McConnell thought a deal could come together Thursday, he said: "I hope so."
The Senate is now considering a pair of bills the House passedon Wednesday - H.J. Res. 100 (117), that would impose a contract over the objections of tens of thousands of rail workers who were still bargaining for more sick leave; and H. Con. Res. 119 (117), which adds seven days of paid leave to the contract agreement.
The Senate now must act on those bills - and any changes to that text would have to go back through the House and draw the process out even longer.
President Joe Biden endorsed congressional action to head off a rail strike on Monday, after negotiations between unions who voted down the contract agreement and the railroads largely ground to a halt in recent weeks.
Eight rail unions voted to accept the tentative contract agreement while four chose to reject it. But if any one of the 12 unions chooses to go on strike the rest will not cross a picket line, effectively triggering a nationwide freight rail shutdown.
If the tentative agreement passes the Senate and becomes law without the sick leave bill also passing, it means changes to sick leave policy that workers support will have to wait, or be addressed by Congress at a later date.
Nick Niedzwiadek contributed to this report.