WASHINGTON — The lame duck Congress went into overdrive this week: The Senate approved legislation aimed at protecting same-sex marriage, both houses of Congress approved a bill to avert a crippling rail strike, and Minneapolis lawyer Jerry Blackwell’s nomination for a federal judgeship moved toward confirmation.
The busy week began with Senate consideration of the Respect for Marriage Act, which would enshrine the right to same-sex and interracial marriages into law. Currently that right was established by several landmark Supreme Court opinions, much as Roe v. Wade established the right to an early-term abortion in all states before the high court overturned that decision in June.
The Supreme Court’s action on Roe prompted some members of Congress to seek stronger protections for same sex and interracial marriages. A dozen Republicans joined all Senate Democrats in Tuesday’s 61-36 vote on the Respect for Marriage Act.
The legislation would also repeal the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman and allowed states to decline to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. Under the Respect for Marriage Act, states could refuse to legalize same-sex marriages, but would be required to recognize them if they were performed in a state where those marriages are legal.
The House, which approved a similar bill earlier this year, is expected to pass the Senate’s version next week and send it to President Biden, who will sign it.
“For millions of Americans, this legislation will safeguard the rights and protections to which LGBTQI+ and interracial couples and their children are entitled,” Biden said in a statement.
Rep. Angie Craig, D-2nd District, who is married to a woman, on Wednesday tweeted: “Yesterday, my colleagues in the Senate made history by passing the Respect for Marriage Act. I’m grateful to be part of a Congress that recognizes the need to enshrine marriage equality into law and ensure that families like mine will always be recognized under the law.”
Congress derails rail strike
Meanwhile, the House on Wednesday voted to block a looming railroad strike with a bill that would impose a tentative contract deal between a dozen unions representing about 115,000 railroad workers and the nation’s freight and passenger rail lines.
The threat of a strike was prompted by the rejection by four of the unions of a deal brokered with Biden’s help that that lacked paid sick days or any changes to an attendance policy that rail workers say is punitive. The deal, however, would give rail workers a 24% pay increase and one additional day of paid leave.
Congress was prompted to try to stop the rail strike at Biden’s behest. A rail strike could freeze almost 30% of U.S. cargo shipments by weight, stoke inflation, cost the American economy as much as $2 billion per day and strand millions of Amtrak and commuter rail passengers.
The House vote on the rail bill was 290-137, with all Minnesota Democrats voting for the legislation and several Minnesota Republicans among the 79 GOP House members who voted “yes,” too.
“I believe in the right to organize, but there are times when a strike has such significant implications that Congress should be involved,” said Rep. Dean Phillips, D-3rd.
Reps. Pete Stauber, R-8th, Michelle Fischbach, R-7th, and Brad Finstad, R-1st, were among the House Republicans voting for the railroad bill. But Rep. Tom Emmer, R-6th, voted against it.
Emmer, who will be in the House GOP leadership in the next Congress declined to say why he voted “no.” But his vote was in line with other GOP leaders, including Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who hopes to be speaker, and incoming House Majority Leader Steve Scalise.
Finstad said he supported the bill because a rail strike would have hurt the farmers in his district. Farmers are concerned about the prospects of limited shipments of crops and fertilizers.
“From an agricultural perspective … it would be a disaster,” Finstad said of a rail strike.
Meanwhile, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-4th, said she voted for the rail bill because a strike, which could begin as soon as Dec. 9, would imperil the shipment of chlorine that’s needed for safe drinking water. There’s a major water treatment plant in McCollum’s St. Paul-based district.
“The workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect,” McCollum said. But she said she had to vote for “health and safety.”
After the House vote, Biden called on the Senate to act “urgently.”
“Without the certainty of a final vote to avoid a shutdown this week, railroads will begin to halt the movement of critical materials like chemicals to clean our drinking water as soon as this weekend,” the president said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, D-New York, heeded the president’s call and the Senate approved the railroad bill on a bipartisan basis on Thursday.
In the House, Democrats who feared the legislation is “anti-union” were pacified with the approval of a separate bill that would provide railroad workers with seven days of paid sick leave. That helped McCollum and other House Democrats, including Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-5th, vote for the bill. But the sick leave bill failed to win the 60 votes needed to pass in the U.S. Senate.
Blackwell moves towards confirmation for federal judgeship
The candidacy of Minneapolis lawyer Jerry Blackwell for a seat on U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota advanced this week when the Senate on Thursday voted on a procedural motion that paves the way for vote on the nomination.
Six Republicans joined all Democrats in attendance to vote 54-42 to invoke cloture, or end debate, on the nomination. A simple majority was needed to advance the nomination.
The six Republican senators who voted to move Blackwell’s candidacy forward were Sens. Roy Blunt of Missouri, Susan Collins of Maine, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
Though much of his career was spent as a corporate lawyer, Blackwell was tapped by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison to prosecute Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd.
“He didn’t make it (the prosecution of Chauvin) about himself, he didn’t make it about some hot shot litigation move, he made it about George Floyd,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., in a speech on the Senate floor before the cloture vote.
Klobuchar also said “Jerry has broad respect in Minnesota’s legal community,” and is “one of the most accomplished and respected litigators” in the state. She also said Blackwell was raised in a textile mill town in North Carolina in a home that lacked running water and was the first in the family to attend college.
The Senate could hold a confirmation vote on Blackwell’s nomination on Monday.