The House voted Wednesday to head off a possible railroad strike that could bring fertilizer shipments to a halt as soon as this weekend and potentially devastate the broader economy.

In a bipartisan 290-137 vote, the House easily approved a measure that would impose a contract on the industry that was recommended by a presidential board but rejected by four of 12 rail unions. Some 79 Republicans voted for the measure.

"This overwhelming bipartisan vote in the House of Representatives makes clear that Democrats and Republicans agree that a rail shutdown would be devastating to our economy and families across the country," President Joe Biden said. 

The House held a separate vote on a Democratic measure that would add seven days of sick leave to the contract, a key demand of the dissenting unions. It was unclear how that measure would fare in the Senate; the bill passed the House, 221-207, on a near party-line vote. 

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., added the vote on sick leave to address concerns about the issue in her own party. She said a railroad strike would cripple the economy.

“Families wouldn't be able to buy groceries or life-saving medications, because it'd be even more expensive, and perishable goods would spoil before reaching shelves,” she said. "Farmers would also be unable to get crops to market, and cities could run out of the chlorine they need to keep drinking water clean."

Republicans, however, said President Joe Biden should have intervened in the dispute earlier and decried Pelosi's decision to hold a separate vote on paid sick leave. Biden had called for Congress to approve the contract without amendment. 

“We're here because of a failure by the Biden administration to prevent a rail labor strike, and it's unfortunate that we need Congress to act quickly to avoid obviously a catastrophic economic disaster or consequences as a result of this,” said Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo.

Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., called the sick-leave measure a “poison pill” that Pelosi had to bring to the floor because she otherwise couldn’t get enough votes for the main bill needed to impose the contract on rail workers.

The sick-leave measure is not quite a poison pill since it required separate Senate approval. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., expressed confidence Wednesday that the sick-leave issue would at least get a vote. Whether it can get enough GOP support is another question. 

Sanders and 11 other Democratic senators issued a statement calling for a vote on the sick-leave measure. “We commend the House for addressing this outrageous situation and guaranteeing paid sick days to every rail worker in America. We urge the Senate to quickly take up the House-passed language for a roll call vote and urge our colleagues to support these workers," the statement said. 

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg are expected to meet with Democratic senators on Thursday. 

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Farm and agribusiness groups sent a letter to Capitol Hill on Wednesday appealing for passage of the bill that would put the new contract in force.

“A strike or lockout combined with existing challenges in the rail system, at our ports, with trucking and with record low water levels on the Mississippi River impacting numerous barge shipments would have harmful consequences for the agricultural and broader U.S. economies,” the letter said. 

“We urge Congress to deliver a bipartisan bill to the president’s desk well in advance of Dec. 9 at 12:01 a.m. when a strike or lockout could occur. As experienced in September, rail services are anticipated to begin winding down approximately one week in advance of Dec. 9."

The letter didn't address the issue of sick leave. 

The threat of a rail disruption has been particularly urgent for the fertilizer industry, because shipments of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer would have to be pulled off the network five days before a strike were to begin, according to The Fertilizer Institute.

National Grain and Feed Association President and CEO Mike Seyfert said a strike would also hit livestock producers that solely rely on rail for feed shipments.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack played a lead role in the administration’s handling of the labor dispute because of its implications for the ag sector.

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