Freight train cars sit in a Norfolk Southern rail yard on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022, in Atlanta. The Senate on Thursday voted to avert a rail strike, and the bill now awaits President Joe Biden's signature. Credit: Danny Karnik / AP

WASHINGTON — A bill to avert a rail strike that President Joe Biden and business leaders warned would have had devastating consequences for the economy passed the Senate on Thursday, with Maine Sen. Susan Collins among just 15 no votes.

The measure binds rail companies and workers to a proposed settlement that was reached between the rail companies and union leaders in September. That settlement had been rejected by some of the 12 unions involved, creating the possibility of a strike beginning Dec. 9.

The Senate vote was 80-15 and came one day after the House voted to impose the agreement. Collins was among 10 Republicans who opposed the deal and they were joined by five Democratic caucus members. It now goes to the Democratic president’s desk for a signature.

In a statement, Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, referred to the vote as a “necessary step” to avoid severe economic pain to the tune of $2 billion a day that would have come from federal railways being shut down.

He noted that the contract had improvements for workers, including the largest salary increase in over 50 years, a cap on health care premiums and further opportunities for leave.

“While I would have preferred for unions and rail companies to finalize the September contract agreement through the normal bargaining process, the disastrous impact of a rail strike was simply a price we could not afford to pay,” King said.

Collins voted for an unsuccessful amendment from Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, that would have provided the parties 60 days after the Dec. 8 deadline to continue negotiations while King voted against it. King backed another amendment from Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, that would have added seven days of paid sick leave to the contract. That amendment failed to get the 60 votes needed to pass, with Collins opposing it.

The Republican senator does not think Congress should impose a contract, which was why she voted for the 60-day pause, Collins spokesperson Annie Clark said in a statement. 

“She believes the sick leave issue in particular should have been resolved through the collective bargaining process, and she hopes that both sides will continue to work on it,” Clark said.

Shortly before Thursday’s votes, Biden, who had urged Congress to intervene, defended the contract that four of the unions had rejected, noting wage increases.

“I negotiated a contract no one else could negotiate,” Biden said at a briefing with French President Emmanuel Macron. “What was negotiated was so much better than anything they ever had.”

Critics say the contract that did not receive backing from enough union members lacked sufficient levels of paid leave for rail workers. Biden said he wants paid leave for “everybody” so that it wouldn’t have to be negotiated in employment contracts, but Republicans have blocked measures to require time off work for medical and family reasons. The president said Congress should now impose the contract to avoid a strike that could cause 750,000 job losses.

Railways say that halting rail service would cause a devastating $2 billion-per-day hit to the economy. A freight rail strike also would have a big potential impact on passenger rail, with Amtrak and many commuter railroads relying on tracks owned by the freight railroads.

The rail companies and 12 unions have been engaged in high-stakes negotiations. The Biden administration helped broker deals between the railroads and union leaders in September, but four of the unions rejected the deals. The others approved five-year deals and are getting back pay for their workers for raises retroactive to 2020.

Most lawmakers would prefer the parties work out their differences on their own. The intervention was difficult for Democratic lawmakers who traditionally align themselves with the politically powerful labor unions that criticized Biden’s move to intervene.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, responded to that concern by holding a second vote Wednesday on a bill that would add seven days of paid sick leave per year for rail workers covered under the agreement. Maine’s two House Democrats, Chellie Pingree of the 1st District and Jared Golden of the 2nd District, backed that while Golden opposed the Biden deal.

The call for paid sick leave was a major sticking point in the talks along with other quality-of-life concerns. The railroads say the unions have agreed in negotiations over the decades to forgo paid sick time in favor of higher wages and strong short-term disability benefits.

Associated Press staff writer Josh Boak and BDN writer David Marino Jr. contributed to this report.