A key vote for freight rail, as Congress waits

With help from Oriana Pawlyk and Tanya Snyder

— The two largest freight rail unions will report their contract votes today as Congress prepares to intervene to head off a costly strike.

— House leadership campaigns officially begin, though Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s path to 218 votes in his bid for speaker could be challenging.

— Tribal leaders say the federal government isn’t doing enough to build roads on tribal lands.

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“Oh, Railroad days/Railroad days/Railroad days/When I was young, in my prime/On my way/When the rain never got in my way/Oh in my younger railroad days.”

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THE REAL ELECTION DAY: The two largest freight rail unions split their votes on agreeing to a contract, a mixed signal in a months-long, high-stakes negotiation that could lead to a shutdown of the nation’s freight rail network starting next month, your MT host and Tanya report. Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen members voted to accept a tentative agreement reached on Sept. 15, while SMART Transportation Division members voted to reject their proposed contract. SMART-TD yardmasters, who were voting separately from the rest of the larger union, voted to ratify their agreement.

PEB GOP PUSH: Republicans in the House and Senate say they will push to enshrine into law recommendations put forward in August by a board appointed by President Joe Biden, your MT host and Tanya report. While the freight railroads accepted those recommendations, the unions did not because they did not address attendance policies that rank-and-file workers have denounced for years. Democrats are urging the railroads to agree to more paid sick leave.

READY TO GO: Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), the top Republican on the House subcommittee that oversees railroads, told POLITICO that “we’ve got something prepared if necessary, but I’m hoping it’s not necessary.” Senate Commerce Committee ranking member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said he has language ready to go, too.

BOOST OR BLOW? The split vote to ratify the tentative contract agreement from the two biggest unions, which collectively represent about half of the 125,000 workers involved in negotiations, puts more pressure on Congress to avert a shutdown. The possibility of a shutdown in September led to the cancellation of certain shipments by rail and shuttered passenger trains that run on freight rail tracks. A full-blown strike would cost the economy billions.

REVIVING START: With time running out on the House Democrats’ attempt to complete a bill on automated vehicles, Republicans are ready to pick up where they left off four years ago when the AV START Act, S. 1885 (115), failed. “I’m looking forward to the next Congress where we can work on this again,” said Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio). Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) had been meeting with automakers, trial lawyers and organized labor for well over a year to try to bridge some of the divides that had gummed up the process in 2018, but time’s almost up on the Democratic-controlled House.

Starting over: Latta downplayed any progress the Democrats made in bringing the parties together, saying that he plans to start the stakeholder consultation process over again in the new year. Latta no longer heads the Consumer Protection and Commerce panel with jurisdiction over the issue, but nevertheless expects to be the GOP point person on the issue going forward.

SURPRISE, SURPRISE: Rep.Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) officially launched his bid for House minority leader in the next Congress, and he’s widely expected to become the first Black member of Congress to hold the top party leadership spot. Reps. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.) and Pete Aguliar (D-Calif.) are seeking the No. 2 and No. 3 positions, and the trio have spent months building up support from behind the scenes before officially announcing bids on Friday after Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Whip Jim Clyburn announced they will step down from their leadership posts.

MATH PROBLEM: So far, at least three House Republicans have said they will not vote for McCarthy for speaker, complicating his path to 218 votes after Republicans gained a slim House majority next Congress. Reps. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.), Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), Matt Rosendale (R-Mont.) are all opposed to McCarthy, while Biggs himself received 31 votes for the GOP’s speaker nominee in a secret ballot this week. The GOP currently has 218 House seats, according to POLITICO projections, and is favored to win three of the five seats that are not yet called. Every additional GOP victory likely helps McCarthy’s quest for 218 speaker votes.

NOMINATIONS MOVING: The Senate EPW Committee announced that FHWA administrator nominee Shailen Bhatt and EPA administrator nominee Joseph Goffman will receive a committee vote on Nov. 29. Bhatt has served as executive director of the Colorado DOT and secretary of the Delaware DOT, and was FHWA’s associate administrator for policy and government affairs during the Obama administration.

TRIBAL ISSUES: Source New Mexico had a good rundown of DOT secretary Pete Buttigieg’s visit with tribal leaders last week, and they said that the federal government isn’t doing enough to invest in infrastructure like paving roads, as federal data shows that 60 percent of tribal roads are unpaved. Tribal leaders told Buttigieg that they’ve lost out on federal dollars due to formula funding requirements that are different for tribes than states, and missed grant application deadlines while trying to line up engineers and specialists for projects.

“We always have to deal with that white tape. I call it white tape. A lot of people call it red tape, but I call it white tape, because it’s somebody else making those regulations for us,” said Ron Shutiva, the tribal liaison for the New Mexico Department of Transportation.

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— “Aviation enthusiasts grieve lost lives at Dallas air show, wait for investigation.” Dallas Morning News.

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