Reported by Ben White and Eleanor Mueller for Politico.
President Joe Biden narrowly avoided an economic and political debacle on Thursday as senior administration officials helped salvage a tentative, last-minute deal to avert a devastating railroad strike.
And it almost didn’t happen.
Steering clear of disaster required some 20 straight hours of talks beginning Wednesday that taxed Labor Department coffee supplies, kept West Wing office lights burning through the early hours and left everyone involved bleary-eyed and largely sleepless.
The agreement, still subject to union members’ approval, seemed all but dead late into the night as talks led by Labor Secretary Marty Walsh dragged on with all sides in the years-long dispute frustrated and exhausted.
But the prospect of dormant freight trains leaving fall crops to rot in the fields, livestock to die of starvation and grocery shelves to go empty hung over the West Wing and spurred heavy pressure from Biden and the White House to strike a deal.
A rail strike affecting 40 percent of the nation’s freight traffic at a cost of $2 billion a day could have severely damaged an economy already suffering from supply chain snarls, the highest inflation in four decades and a Federal Reserve pumping hard on the brakes to bring prices down.
“It’s like, Holy Christ: The magnitude of what would have happened,” Walsh, running on an hour-and-a-half of sleep, said in an interview. “We’ll never fully understand, thank God.”
The tentative agreement allowed Biden to bask in a Rose Garden victory ceremony and tout gains for organized labor, an element of the Democratic base that’s critical to the party’s hopes of avoiding a midterm electoral drubbing.
He called the agreement “an important win for our economy and the American people” as well as “a win for tens of thousands of rail workers.”
But this was more a case of flirting with catastrophe than scoring a game-changing win. And it took a buzzer-beater to get there.
“Things felt differently from when the sun went down to when it came up, that’s for sure,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who also played a major part in the talks even while devising emergency contingency plans in the event of failure. We “engaged in it at a heightened level for months and a lot of that culminated in the last 24 hours with more phone calls than I can count.”
Buttigieg and other administration officials heaped praise on Biden for a 9 p.m. call to negotiators representing the nation’s big rail carriers and union leaders, where he expressed concern and stressed that failure was “unacceptable.” But those involved in the talks said that while helpful, Biden was one of many who helped save the deal.
Other top Democrats called into the talks to urge a deal, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. And the heavy lifting on details of the deal — which granted pay hikes and time off for medical events, among other things — fell to Walsh, his deputy Julie Su, Buttigieg, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese and other White House officials.
“Secretary Walsh was a constant,” AFL-CIO TTD President Greg Regan said.
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