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Washington Watch: Washington on track to avert U.S. rail strike as House passes crucial bill, sends it to Senate

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Washington appeared on course Wednesday to intervene and block a railroad strike, with the House voting 290-137 in favor of a bill that would impose a deal on freight-rail workers, even as four of their 12 unions oppose it.

Top U.S. lawmakers had indicated that Congress would pass the legislation to prevent a strike after President Joe Biden called on the House and Senate to do exactly that.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, told reporters on Tuesday that her chamber would take up legislation on Wednesday that would avert a strike and send it over to the Senate.

“I don’t like going against the ability of unions to strike, but weighing the equities, we must avoid a strike,” she said.

The deal that would be imposed on rail employees includes a 24% increase in wages from 2020 through 2024, but workers remain concerned about a lack of paid sick time.

After passing the strike-averting legislation Wednesday, the House then voted 221-207 to OK a separate measure that would provide rail workers with seven days of paid sick leave per year.

The question will be “whether the expanded sick-leave legislation will have the necessary votes to pass” in the Senate, Raymond James analysts wrote in a note on Wednesday.

“Signals from lawmakers indicate that there is openness to the expanded sick leave portion on both sides of the aisle, but passage will be contingent on 10 Republicans voting with Democrats to advance the measure. This will be a fluid process with the potential for delay as the politics of the issue play out, but we ultimately expect Congress to advance legislation to settle an agreement.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat, told reporters Tuesday that he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, were aiming to pass legislation that would avert a strike as soon as possible. 

“Leader McConnell and I agreed we’d try to get it done ASAP,” Schumer said following a meeting with Biden and GOP leaders on year-end legislative priorities.

Talk about averting a strike has been optimistic. As Tuesday’s meeting between Biden and top lawmakers began, the president said he was “confident” that a strike wouldn’t happen.

Analysts have sounded upbeat as well.

“In our view, a protracted strike is unlikely, because the Biden Administration and Congress view a supply chain disruption ahead of the holidays as ‘unacceptable’ and will have to step in,” Benjamin Salisbury, research director at Height Capital Markets, wrote in a note on Tuesday.

Railroad unions and their allies criticized Biden and top Democrats.

“The absolute minimum which a pro-labor president should do is listen when rail workers say that the contract his administration negotiated did not deliver what they need,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, in a statement. His organization aims to track corporate political influence and is part of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank.

While the broad equity market
SPX,
+1.40%

DJIA,
+0.69%

lost ground Tuesday, railroad operators’ stocks finished higher for the session as traders reacted to Washington’s moves. On Wednesday, the market mostly pulled back, and it also was a down day for Norfolk Southern Corp. 
NSC,
+0.26%
,
CSX Corp. 
CSX,
+0.30%

and Union Pacific Corp. 
UNP,
+1.15%
.

Related: Railroad stocks rally Tuesday as strike risk effectively removed after Biden urges Congress to step in

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