WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday passed a last-minute bill to force a deal between freight rail companies and labor unions, averting a potential strike that could have caused massive disruptions to the U.S. economy in the middle of the holiday season, while rejecting a measure to give workers an extra week of paid sick leave.
The 80-15 vote came two days after the House passed the legislation, which self-described "pro-labor" President Joe Biden reluctantly requested after four of the nation's dozen rail unions voted to reject a deal his administration helped broker in September that would increase wages by 24% over five years, while giving workers just a single day of paid sick leave each year.
A nearly century-old law gives Congress the authority to limit rail strikes, which threaten the nation's food, energy and drinking water supplies.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., explained her vote to avert a strike in a statement.
"While I am always reluctant to bypass the traditional negotiation and ratification process for any collective bargaining agreement, the harm a national rail shutdown would cause to working families and communities in Washington state and across the country is undeniable," Murray said, "and I voted to protect the livelihoods of countless Americans and local communities."
While Murray and fellow Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell voted for the separate measure to increase paid sick leave, it fell short of the 60 votes needed to pass. Just one Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, voted against that measure. Six Republicans voted for it: Sens. Mike Braun of Indiana, Ted Cruz of Texas, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Josh Hawley of Missouri, John Kennedy of Louisiana and Marco Rubio of Florida.
Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, both Idaho Republicans, voted to avert the strike and against the extra days of paid sick leave.
In the House on Tuesday, 79 Republicans voted along with all but eight Democrats to force the unions to accept the deal, while only three GOP lawmakers joined the Democrats to support the extra leave measure. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane opposed both bills, while her fellow GOP Reps. Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside and Russ Fulcher, who represents North Idaho, voted to avert a strike but against the leave measure.
If Congress had not acted, disruptions to freight rail were expected to begin as soon as Saturday, with a potential strike looming Dec. 9. The legislation will now go to Biden, who has said he will sign it into law.