WASHINGTON — Acting rapidly to avert a potential national rail strike, the Senate on Thursday moved toward passing legislation to impose a labor agreement between rail companies and their workers, as the threat of a holiday season disruption that would jeopardize shipping across the country loomed.
Approval of the measure, which the House passed overwhelmingly on Wednesday, would send it to President Biden, who made a personal appeal for the action and has said he wants the bill on his desk by the weekend. It would be the first time since the 1990s that Congress has used its power under the Constitution’s commerce clause, which allows it to regulate interstate commerce, to intervene in a national rail labor dispute.
“The consequences of inaction would be severe,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader, ticking through a list of what he described as the “serious problems that would occur if there’s a rail shutdown.”
The bill would impose a tentative agreement that the Biden administration helped negotiate earlier this year between the rail companies and top union leaders, which would include a 24-percent increase in wages and one additional paid day off.
But that contract has failed to win support from some of the rail worker unions, who have complained that it lacks sufficient paid leave.
To secure a deal to speed the measure through the Senate, leaders agreed to first consider a Republican proposal to extend the Dec. 9 negotiating deadline for 60 days.
“This is a complicated issue that literally just got dumped on us,” said Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, who sponsored the extension measure. He added, “I think the ability to give it some time, tell the Biden administration and others to get back to work on it, I think could be important.”
The Senate also planned a vote on a separate proposal from Democrats to add seven days of paid sick leave to the contract, a key liberal priority.
The House on Wednesday approved a measure to add seven days of paid leave to the agreement, voting mostly along party lines. But it was unclear whether it could clear the 60-vote threshold to pass in the Senate.