December 11, 2023

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POLITICO Playbook: Why ‘Union Joe’ put the screws to rail workers

With help from Eli Okun and Garrett Ross

In 1992, two days into a crippling railroad strike, then-Sen. JOE BIDEN came to the Senate floor and decried the lopsided nature of federal labor laws dealing with the rail industry — laws, he argued, that essentially allowed corporations, regulators and, ultimately, Congress to run roughshod over workers.

“We need to restore a measure of balance to these negotiations,” he said, before voting with just five other senators against halting the strike.

Thirty years later, as president, Biden is turning to those very same laws to prevent another strike and impose a tentative contract agreement that his administration brokered but multiple rail unions voted to reject.

“As a proud pro-labor President, I am reluctant to override the ratification procedures and the views of those who voted against the agreement,” the president said in a statement. “But in this case — where the economic impact of a shutdown would hurt millions of other working people and families — I believe Congress must use its powers to adopt this deal.”

— Translation: It’s a lot easier to be “Union Joe” as one senator among 100 than it is as president of the United States — especially during holiday shopping season and a persistent bout of inflation.

People familiar with the process told us last night that Biden and his advisers determined that the risk to the economy was just too great. A strike would disrupt supply chains — including such critical goods as motor fuels and water treatment chemicals — and could ultimately cost the U.S. economy $1 billion within a week, according to analysis from the Anderson Economic Group.

POLITICO Transportation Pro Tanya Snyder captures the economic stakes: “Though a bitter pill for labor to swallow, enacting the agreement would put an end to the cliffhanger deadlines that have loomed every few weeks since summer, and allow all manner of industries that depend on freight rail shipments to stand down from doomsday preparations.”

The tentative deal was struck in September after administration officials, led by Labor Secretary MARTY WALSH, helped mediate discussions between railroads and unions. It included a 24 percent raise by 2023 and a cap on health care premiums. And while it included only scant progress on workers’ sick leave demands, Biden, pro-labor lawmakers and union reps all hailed the agreement as a victory.

— But sealing the deal meant members of 12 different unions had to ratify the agreement by Dec. 9. Four unions, including the largest of the 12, voted to reject it.

TONY CALDWELL, president of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees, told WaPo Monday that “his members will not ratify a deal unless it includes more expansive sick leave benefits.”

Until Monday, administration officials remained engaged in resolving the dispute. But Biden said in his statement that Walsh, Transportation Secretary PETE BUTTIGIEG and Agriculture Secretary TOM VILSACK advised him “there is no path to resolve the dispute at the bargaining table” and recommended he ask Congress to impose the September deal.

The move has already ruffled feathers inside the rail unions, with some suggesting that Biden failed to walk the walk despite all his pro-labor talk. One member of a union that voted down the agreement told the NYT that Biden’s move “seems to cater to the oligarchs.”

As one former Labor Department official told us, “There is a sentiment among some railroad workers that they thought the president was going to absolutely battle all the way to the end to get them exactly what they wanted. He’s going to have some unhappy people. I think there’s going to be some grumbling in the labor movement.”

— The former official was hopeful that Biden’s pro-union history couldn’t and wouldn’t be overshadowed by this one decision.

That remains to be seen, but other top Democrats quickly fell into line behind Biden. Soon after the presidential statement, Speaker NANCY PELOSI promised House action this week, “with no poison pills or changes to the negotiated terms” and “a strongly bipartisan vote.” Senate Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER stayed mum Monday night but CNN reported that enough Republicans are expected to get behind the deal to pass it.

But there’s a chance any one senator could keep the chamber from acting before the Dec. 9 deadline. All eyes are on Vermont Sen. BERNIE SANDERS, who is pushing for more sick leave in the rail deal. Sanders’s office did not comment on his precise position to Playbook or other media organizations.

Good Tuesday morning. Thanks for reading Playbook. Drop us a line: Rachael Bade, Eugene Daniels, Ryan Lizza.

IN MEMORIAM — Rep. DONALD McEACHIN (D-Va.) died Monday at 61 from the “secondary effects” of colorectal cancer that he fought nearly a decade ago, his office announced Monday. A longtime former state legislator from Richmond, McEachin was just elected to a fourth House term.

“McEachin’s priorities in Congress included protecting the Affordable Care Act and women’s reproductive [rights], combating climate change and promoting environmental justice, and preserving Black cemeteries,” writes the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Michael Martz. A personal injury lawyer with a master’s degree in divinity, he was also Virginia’s first Black nominee for state attorney general.

McEachin’s chief of staff, TARA ROUNTREE, called him “a hero who always, always fought for [his constituents] and put them first,” while Sen. TIM KAINE called him “a gentle giant, a compassionate champion for underdogs, a climate warrior, a Christian example, an understanding dad, a proud husband, a loyal brother.”

Republican Gov. GLENN YOUNGKIN will set a special election to replace McEachin.



GEORGIA ON MY MIND — More than 400,000 Georgians have already voted early in the Senate runoff, including perhaps upward of a quarter-million who turned out Monday, WaPo’s Dylan Wells, John Wagner and Matthew Brown report from Atlanta.

— In a display of restraint, Trump won’t campaign with HERSCHEL WALKER in person, NYT’s Michael Bender reports. Their teams decided it could hurt more than help. That’s different from how Trump handled the last Georgia runoffs.

— Instead, Walker’s most important surrogate is Gov. BRIAN KEMP, newly helpful to Walker in the runoff, Natalie Allison and Meridith McGraw report this morning.

— Walker, who’s been dogged by residency questions and lived in Texas for decades, was renting out his place in Georgia as recently as 2021, The Daily Beast’s Roger Sollenberger reports. The Walker campaign didn’t respond to the Beast for comment.

— Two new polls find a tight race: FrederickPolls has Walker and Sen. RAPHAEL WARNOCK tied at 50%, with some Kemp-Warnock voters jumping ship to Walker for the runoff. And Phillips Academy has Walker up 48% to 47%.

MYPILLOW TALK — MyPillow CEO MIKE LINDELL jumped into the race for RNC chair Monday, telling CBS’ Graham Kates that the GOP needs to take a different approach. Lindell, a prominent purveyor of election falsehoods, made the announcement on a show hosted by STEVE BANNON. “Will Lindell accept the results if he loses? ‘That’s a pretty good question,’ Lindell said. ‘If there’s any computer used, I would question any election which used a computer.’”

GOP AUTOPSY — The RNC is launching a midterm post-mortem to examine why the party underperformed expectations even as it flipped the House, Alex Isenstadt reports this morning. The “review” of party mechanics, led by HENRY BARBOUR and HARMEET DHILLON, will come out sometime next year. And a new outside Republican Party Advisory Council — including KELLYANNE CONWAY, TONY PERKINS, BLAKE MASTERS, Sen.-elect KATIE BRITT and Reps.-elect MONICA DE LA CRUZ and JOHN JAMES — will weigh in on strategy.

2024 WATCH — Sen. CATHERINE CORTEZ MASTO’s (D-Nev.) chamber-clinching reelection is the new arrow in Nevada’s quiver as it seeks to convince the DNC to put the state first on the presidential primary calendar, The Daily Beast’s Ursula Perano reports.

— Though plenty of questions remain about how the vote will shake out, it’s clear that many Democrats want Iowa to lose its spot at the front of the line, Elena Schneider reports this morning.

— Battle for the Senate: DAVID McCORMICK, having fallen just short of the Pennsylvania GOP Senate nomination this year, could make another go at it in 2024, against Democratic Sen. BOB CASEY,Bloomberg’s Katherine Burton, Sridhar Natarajan and Gregory Korte report.

McELWEE OUT — SEAN McELWEE is leaving Data for Progress at the end of the year after the firm’s leaders essentially declared a vote of no confidence, Puck’s Teddy Schleifer reports. McElwee had gotten in hot water over his ties to fallen crypto billionaire SAM BANKMAN-FRIED and “his proclivity for betting on elections in which Data for Progress also polled,” both giving Data for Progress bad publicity.


ANNALS OF DIPLOMACY — Harris will go to NASA headquarters with French President EMMANUEL MACRON on Wednesday, CNN’s Jeremy Diamond scooped. The stop will “include a working meeting and a briefing by US space officials,” and “highlight a deepening French-American partnership on space and the budding relationship between Harris and Macron, who developed a visibly chummy chemistry during Harris’s five-day trip to Paris last year.”


MARRIAGE BILL INCHES CLOSER — Legislation to codify same-sex and interracial marriage rights appears on track to pass the Senate this afternoon, after the same 12 Republicans who have joined with Democrats in support advanced the bill on a procedural vote Monday evening. More from the AP

WHAT GEORGIA MEANS — Democrats may have already secured control of the Senate, but the Georgia runoff will have a significant impact on the chamber, Burgess Everett reports this morning. A victory for Warnock would change committee dynamics, floor operations and the 2024 map for Dems. A Walker upset would give the GOP a big morale boost.

LAME DUCK QUACKING — A bipartisan bill that would enshrine job protections for pregnant workers faces an uncertain future in Congress’ lame-duck session, despite broad support, Eleanor Mueller reports. Opposition from Sen. RAND PAUL (R-Ky.) and a few other Republicans has kept it off the Senate floor, but Democrats are now angling to attach the bill to either the omnibus spending package or the National Defense Authorization Act.

— Sen. RICHARD SHELBY (R-Ala.) said in-depth government funding talks probably won’t happen until after the Georgia runoff, and negotiations could stretch late in the year. “I’ve been here Christmas Eve, and you have too,” he said, per Katherine Tully-McManus.

STRANGE STORY — The State Department is backing allegations from Rep. NORMA TORRES (D-Calif.) that El Salvador tried to influence her election after she criticized its government, NBC’s Carmen Sesin reports. Salvadoran President NAYIB BUKELE’s allies tweeted their opposition to Torres during the campaign, which State called “unacceptable.” But Torres says she wants more aggressive action, like throwing the Salvadoran ambassador out. Bukele’s government says she’s the one who’s interfered in their country.


FUENTES FALLOUT — As senators returned to Washington on Monday night, more GOP condemnations of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago meeting with YE and white supremacist NICK FUENTES started to roll in. Prominent figures like former VP MIKE PENCE and Sens. BILL CASSIDY (R-La.), MARCO RUBIO (R-Fla.), SUSAN COLLINS (R-Maine) and JOHN THUNE (R-S.D.) blasted the dinner — with some willing to call Trump out by name, but others just criticizing his staff and Fuentes. Sen. MITT ROMNEY (R-Utah) was particularly sharp, saying he opposed Trump for the 2024 nomination and “I certainly don’t want him hanging over our party like a gargoyle.” Roundup from Olivia Olander and Nancy Vu

— Some Jewish Republicans who have previously stuck by Trump are withdrawing their support, NYT’s Jonathan Weisman reports.

— Trump called his former ambassador to Israel, DAVID FRIEDMAN, right after Friedman tweeted a condemnation of the meeting last week, the Forward’s Jacob Kornbluh adds.

THE INVESTIGATIONS — The Trump Organization’s defense rested Monday in the criminal tax fraud trial against the company. Defense attorneys called two witnesses, an outside accountant and a paralegal. But the former’s “testimony appeared to backfire on the defense and bolster the prosecution’s case,” Reuters’ Luc Cohen and Karen Freifeld report. Closing arguments are set to take place Thursday and Friday, followed by jury deliberations next week. More from Insider on the judge admonishing the defense

— Trump explicitly acknowledged taking White House documents and said on Truth Social that he did so “openly and transparently.”


SCOTUS WATCH — Stay tuned, PREET BHARARA: The Supreme Court signaled cross-ideological consensus that a pair of the former prosecutor’s high-profile public corruption convictions in New York would be overturned, Josh Gerstein reports. The ANDREW CUOMO-era cases could continue to narrow how officials may bring corruption cases against public officials.

— Happening today: SCOTUS hears arguments in an immigration policy case, Roll Call’s Suzanne Monyak previews — one that “could carry sweeping implications for how immigration rules may be contested in court.”

— The court again defended Justice SAMUEL ALITO on Monday from allegations that he might have leaked a big 2014 contraception ruling, NYT’s Jodi Kantor reports. Court legal counsel ETHAN TORREY said in a letter to congressional committee chairs that the Alitos denied the Rev. ROBERT SCHENCK’s claims about leaking, and that the justice hadn’t violated ethics. Torrey didn’t say whether the court is investigating the matter. The letter

— The court will reopen for public tours Thursday for the first time since the pandemic began, it announced Monday. More from NBC


NOT SUCH A WARM WELCOME — Droves of Russians who oppose VLADIMIR PUTIN have sought refuge in the U.S. by crossing the Mexican border — but instead they’ve ended up in immigration detention, NYT’s Miriam Jordan reports from Pine Prairie, La. From those detention centers, “it is difficult to secure lawyers and collect evidence, and the chances of winning asylum are extremely slim.” Their treatment is a far cry from the embrace pro-democracy activists imagined they’d receive in the U.S.

HOTLINE GOES COLD — The military communication channel the U.S. and Russia created during the war in Ukraine has been used just once, Reuters’ Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali scooped.


THE CHINESE PROTESTS — As protests over strict Covid restrictions in China intensify, the White House is trying to calibrate its response, which so far has been much less forceful than how it handled the ongoing Iran protests. Officials are holding back because they doubt the ultimate efficacy — and scope — of the protests in China, NYT’s David Sanger reports. As it seeks cooperation with Beijing on various issues, “the White House wants to pick its fights with care.” And it doesn’t want to validate rhetoric that the protests are orchestrated from abroad.

Meanwhile, some analysts warn that further disruption in the world’s largest manufacturing nation could upend the global economy, NYT’s Patricia Cohen reports: “Concerns about the economic impact of the spreading unrest in China, nonetheless, appeared to be partly responsible for a decline in world markets.”

HEADS UP — “The Next Afghan-Refugee Crisis Is Right Here in the U.S.,” by The Atlantic’s Elliot Ackerman: “Without congressional action, the tens of thousands of Afghans we evacuated to the United States may be deported in the coming year, and very few in Washington seem to be talking about it.”

CRISIS IN HAITI — “As Haiti Unravels, U.S. Officials Push to Send in an Armed Foreign Force,” by NYT’s Natalie Kitroeff: “Now, fearing that the humanitarian crisis engulfing Haiti could spur mass migration to the United States and elsewhere, some top Biden administration officials are pushing to send a multinational armed force to the country, several current and former officials say, after the Haitian government made an appeal for such an intervention last month.

“But the United States doesn’t want its own troops included in that force, even though officials fear that the tumult in Haiti will send an even bigger wave of migrants to American shores.”


IMMIGRATION FILES — “A Flood of Venezuelan Migrants Has Angered a Surprising Group — Other Venezuelans,” by Tony Frangie Mawad in POLITICO Magazine: “[T]he internecine anger between some long-time residents and the new arrivals is complementing the political frustration conservative Venezuelans feel toward the Biden administration over its sometimes-contradictory immigration policies and approach to the Venezuelan regime.”

MEGATRENDS — “Bills targeting trans youth are growing more common — and radically reshaping lives,” NPR … “With no child tax credit and inflation on the rise, families are slipping back into poverty,” The 19th


BIG LAWSUIT — A judge allowed DEVIN NUNES’ defamation lawsuit against NBCUniversal to proceed, saying the former congressman had “plausibly allege[d] actual malice” over a RACHEL MADDOW comment, per Reuters’ Jonathan Stempel.

HMM … “Miguel Almaguer remains absent from NBC since stunning Paul Pelosi attack report was mysteriously retracted,” by Fox News’ Brian Flood


ANTITRUST THE PROCESS —ELON MUSK took on Apple and CEO TIM COOK on Monday, tweeting that the company was dangling the possibility of removing Twitter from the App Store. Though his allegation wasn’t confirmed and Apple didn’t respond, the prospect elicited immediate concern from Republicans who support Musk, Rebecca Kern reports. Top congressional antitrust leaders Rep. KEN BUCK (R-Colo.) and MIKE LEE (R-Utah) “pushed for action on antitrust legislation that would ease Apple’s and Google’s control over their app markets.” Apple’s App Store policies have long riled other, smaller apps.

PROMISES, PROMISES — Musk’s Boring Co. has promised localities across the country futuristic transport tunnels that could transform traffic — and then backed out “when confronted with the realities of building public infrastructure,” WSJ’s Ted Mann and Julie Bykowicz report from Ontario, Calif. “Boring has yet to make good on its most ambitious pitch: that it can design tunnel-boring machines that are so fast to operate that they will drive down costs and shake up the industry.” Plans in Maryland included a tunnel machine called Godot — which, fittingly, never showed up.

“Elon Musk posts meme mocking CNN — violating his own Twitter rules,” N.Y. Post

Joe Biden’s Secret Service rental cars in Nantucket went up in flames shortly after being returned.

Mitt Romney’s no-shave November is proceeding nicely, as our photographer Francis Chung captured.

Alexandra Pelosi’s new documentary about her mother, Nancy Pelosi, “Pelosi in the House,” will air on HBO on Dec. 13.

Brigitte Macron’s visit to D.C. this week will include stops at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Planet Word Museum.

Josh Dawsey hasn’t seen a movie in something like five years.

SPOTTED: Chris Christie and Michael Cohen separately at the New York Rangers/New Jersey Devils game. Cohen went over to say hi to Christie during intermission. Christie caught a puck and handed it to a kid, earning a big ovation.

FIRST IN PLAYBOOK — Patrick Large is joining American Defense International. He most recently was chief of staff for Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), and is a Charles Boustany and John Sullivan alum.

MEDIA MOVE — John Wilkerson is now a Washington correspondent for Stat, covering Congress. He previously was senior health group editor at Inside Health Policy.

TRANSITIONS — Rep. Rudy Yakym (R-Ind.) has added Ben Falkowski as chief of staff and Mike Dankler as deputy chief of staff. Falkowski previously was president at the High Point Group. Dankler previously was a principal at Michael Best Strategies. … Mike Walsh is now a partner at Shearman & Sterling. He most recently was at Foley & Lardner, and is a Trump Commerce alum. … Dorothy DeWitt is now chief counsel for finance for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). She most recently was director of the CFTC’s Division of Market Oversight. …

… Liz Amster will be chief of staff for Rep. Jake Auchincloss (D-Mass.). She previously was chief of staff for Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-N.Y.). … Dwayne Carson is joining the lobbying team at Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America. He most recently lobbied on behalf of Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. … Sean O’Brien is now eastern Washington director for Washington Policy Center. He previously was executive director of the Congressional Western Caucus, and is a Dan Newhouse alum.

WEDDING — Vincent Brown, with Arnold & Porter’s legislative and public policy team, and Melissa Horne, human resources business partner at Capital One, got married on Nov. 11. The couple recently returned from their honeymoon in Tahiti. PicAnother pic

HAPPY BIRTHDAY: U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm EmanuelEmily Lenzner … L.A. Times’ Mark BarabakMargaret CarlsonHayley Dierker of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee … Matt HallTom Doheny … CNN’s Pamela BrownCeara Flake … U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s Liz SchrayerJanet NapolitanoMadeline RyanChris Frates of Storyline … Liza Acevedo of the White House … Juri JacobySarah Venuto … Public Citizen’s Robert Weissman Graves Spindler of Bully Pulpit Interactive … Ryan LeavittAlexandra Ulmer … Cornerstone’s Stacy Rich Jessica ReedJoe Sternlieb … former Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) … Atlantic Council’s Shalom LipnerSydelle MooreTrent Spiner Abby Duggan of Sen. Sherrod Brown’s (D-Ohio) office … Brian Reisinger of Platform Communications

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