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Congressional leaders pledge to avert rail strike, negotiate year-end spending deal

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Congressional leaders left a meeting with President Joe Biden on Tuesday resolving to both quickly avert a national railroad strike in the coming weeks and negotiate a $1.5 trillion-plus year-end spending bill in the coming days.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the Senate will work to pass a railroad agreement as soon as possible after the House takes it up, likely on Wednesday. The railroad industry, its unions and government officials have negotiated for months on a worker contract, but with a potential strike looming as soon as Dec. 9 Biden has called on Congress to step in and impose the current agreement, which some unions have deemed insufficient.

“We had a good and productive meeting at the White House,” Schumer said after the meeting. “We all agreed that we should try to avoid this rail shutdown as soon as possible.”

Congressional leaders and top appropriators could also meet as soon as Wednesday about the so-called omnibus spending package, which would boost federal agency budgets for the current fiscal year. The massive appropriations agreement is far from “a done deal,” Schumer said later on Tuesday, with both sides still arguing about their priorities for package.

“But it means the door is open now to discussing an omnibus, which it wasn’t a few days ago because no one knew where everybody was at,” Schumer said on Tuesday afternoon. Government funding expires on Dec. 16.

Those two rapidly approaching deadlines were top of mind as the four congressional leaders — Schumer, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Speaker Nancy Pelosi — met at the White House Tuesday morning to talk about the overloaded lame-duck session of Congress.

Left out of the meeting, however, was any talk of increasing the nation’s debt ceiling before the end of the year, according to a Pelosi spokesperson. Schumer said later Tuesday that Democrats and Republicans should still work together to lift the nation’s debt limit by the end of the year.

“We had a really good meeting that laid out the challenges that we’re all collectively facing here,” McConnell said after the White House visit. “I think there’s widespread agreement that we’d be better off with an omnibus than a [temporary spending patch]. But there are some significant hurdles to get over to do that.”

McConnell said defense funding and extra money for Ukraine are top priorities for most of the GOP conference in a year-end spending deal. But he drew a line at massive spending increases for domestic programs sought by Democrats.

The next few weeks amount to one of the more jam-packed lame duck sessions of Congress in recent memory, with major items on the legislative to-do list delayed until after the midterms. A Dec. 6 run-off race in Georgia has worsened the logjam, with lawmakers delaying major negotiations until they know if Senate Democrats will win a real majority next year or be stuck with another evenly divided chamber.

Adding to the already massive to-do list, Biden asked Congress on Monday to intervene in the potential rail strike, while Pelosi said the House will take a crucial vote this week to ward off the stoppage. Channeling progressive and labor angst about the rail agreement, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said he would not go along with leadership quietly.

“So we have got to fight to make sure that workers in the rail industry get the guaranteed paid sick leave that every American should have,” he said. “So 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 … The answer is yes.”

Sanders is far from the only unhappy liberal in Congress, with many progressives in the House also wary of the contract in its current form.

That liberal backlash could come to a head this week, with several members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus working on their own amendment to guarantee sick leave for workers. Top Democrats, though, have said they don’t intend to include any amendments, since it would amount to Congress essentially rewriting a contract that industry, labor and government officials already agreed to.

And while Pelosi herself acknowledged the need to fight for paid sick leave, she warned a strike would have catastrophic consequences, with at least 750,000 workers, including union members, at risk of losing their jobs.

Democratic leaders will need to act quick to unify their members. While Republicans may support the contract on the floor, that backing wouldn’t help Pelosi with the procedural vote that must come before it — one that will require nearly every one of her members’ support.

Negotiations on a government funding package, needed to avert a shutdown on Dec. 16, have moved grindingly slow. There’s still no agreement among top lawmakers about even the overall funding levels, which would allow them to drill down into more specifics on the $1.5 trillion-plus spending package. Without a deal, Congress could pass a short-term funding patch, buying more time for talks, or a longer term stopgap spending bill that hamstrings federal agencies with stagnant budgets for the better part of 2023.

The Biden administration has already asked for nearly $38 billion in additional Ukraine aid and $10 billion in emergency health funding, of which $9 billion would go to address current and long-term Covid needs. The White House plans to ask for additional disaster relief to address hurricanes and wildfires this year, as well.

There are higher hopes within the administration for an agreement to send billions more dollars to Ukraine — a priority that’s gained increasing urgency for the White House amid worries that House Republicans’ right wing will push for cutting off aid once the GOP takes control of the chamber next year.

The package with adjusted spending levels, if it ever comes together, would likely be loaded up with a swath of policy provisions, since it’s one of the last major pieces of legislation likely to move before the start of the next Congress in January. Another must-pass item on the congressional agenda includes a massive annual defense policy package, which is also expected to be laden with so-called policy riders.

Additionally, congressional leaders have wrestled with whether to raise the debt ceiling over the next two months in the hopes of avoiding a high-stakes standoff with Republicans in 2023. Such action, which could suck up a lot of energy and floor time in the backlogged Senate, seems increasingly unlikely, however. The Treasury Department isn’t expected to hit its borrowing limit until sometime next year.

Senate Democrats and Republicans are hoping to also finish a bill to amend the Electoral Count Act, an age-old law governing election certification, before House Republicans take the majority. Those lawmakers hope to prevent another Jan. 6-type insurrection by both increasing the threshold of members needed to object to presidential election results and clarifying the vice president’s power is ceremonial.

That legislation could be attached to the spending bill or be a standalone item, though that would take up more valuable Senate floor time.

And that’s not even counting some long-shot items on Democrats’ list of priorities, including immigration reform legislation and a host of tax provisions, like an extension of the enhanced Child Tax Credit.

Sarah Ferris and Adam Cancryn contributed to this report.