WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers and Bush administration officials said today they hope to have legislation to end the national railroad strike on the president's desk by Friday at the latest.
Transportation Secretary Samuel Skinner told a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee he is "cautiously optimistic" that a bill could be ready for signing as early as tomorrow morning.
Subcommittee Chairman Al Swift, D-Wash., said he hoped the full committee would vote today.
The nation's 235,000 freight railroad workers went on strike at 7 a.m. today after failing to reach a settlement by the midnight deadline. Some walked out shortly after midnight at a Conrail yard outside Harrisburg, Pa.
"Three years without a contract is long enough," said Jim Davis, a coach repairer for Norfolk Southern in Roanoke, Va.
The 3-year-old dispute centers on wages, work rules and health care.
The strike disrupted Amtrak commuter service in parts of the country, though Amtrak officials said service was close to normal today on the Washington-to-Boston corridor.
Skinner asked the congressional panel to adopt the recommendations of the Presidential Emergency Board to end the strike, which he predicted would paralyze U.S. manufacturing and agriculture if it goes on for several days.
The three-member emergency board, in accordance with the National Railway Act, was created before the strike to study the dispute and make recommendations for an equitable resolution of it.
As of 7:30 a.m., Skinner said, three of the 11 unions had reached tentative agreements with management.
The impact of a rail strike would be "immediate and significant," costing the economy as much as $50 million on the first day and rising to as much as $1 billion a day after a month, Skinner said. Without shipments of parts, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler have said they would begin shutting down operations within two days, he said.
Shipping of perishable products already has stopped, and representatives of the poultry industry say they will have to begin killing chickens at the farms because they will have too many without a way to get rid of them, Skinner said.
Within two weeks, as many as 500,000 employees could be laid off by companies that rely on railroads, he said.
No benefits can be gained at this point by extending the bargaining deadline, which already has been pushed back twice, Skinner said.
Some members of Congress bridled at Skinner's suggestion, saying they would be endorsing the plan that brought the strike on in the first place.
Rail industry officials agreed that extending negotiation deadlines won't lead to a resolution. Although the parties have made "considerable headway" on health and welfare issues, wage and work rule issues continue to divide them, Michael H. Walsh, chairman of the board of the Association of American Railroads, told the subcommittee.