Norfolk Southern train derailment aligns Ohio senators as odd bedfellows
Comment on this story
Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) landed in the Senate just a few months ago after campaigning as a MAGA stalwart. But on Tuesday afternoon, he stood in front of his new Republican colleagues and tried to convince them to support a bill backed by Senate Democrats that would impose a raft of new regulations on a powerful industry.
Vance’s co-workers were polite, but gave a clear message in response: Slow down.
“Nobody jumped up and said, ‘Sign up,'” Sen. Kevin Cramer (RN.D.) said of the freshman’s “compelling” push for a package of rail safety rules. “I didn’t hear anyone say, ‘Hell no, we’re not going.’
The derailment of a Southern Norfolk train carrying hazardous materials in Vance’s home state has thrust the freshman senator into a surprising alliance with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), a sometimes fiery populist liberal who is facing with a fierce re-election battle in red. state in 2024. Vance and Brown have joined in sharp questions of Norfolk Southern’s and the federal government’s response to the disaster in joint letters, introduced comprehensive rail safety legislation and are appearing alongside each other to testify at a hearing which also features the company’s CEO train on Thursday.
The bipartisan alliance has drawn praise from locals relieved to see lawmakers put aside their differences after an emergency, and Vance said last week that he was also pleasantly surprised that the environment in Washington wasn’t too partisan to make any compromise impossible. action.
“In reality, as long as you’re not shy about it, I think it’s possible to get things done,” he told Politico.
But the effort is coming up against deep Republican skepticism of the regulation, both in the Senate — where Vance and Brown likely need about 10 Republican votes to pass anything — and in the GOP-controlled House.
“Giving [Transportation Secretary] Mayor Peter Buttigieg a blank check, which is what the Senate version does, I’m not interested in that,” said Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who represents the district that includes East Palestine, the exit site off the rails. at home.
Vance’s Senate colleagues appear more receptive to his proposal, but told him Tuesday that they want the legislation to go through the Commerce Committee and the regular rule, rather than being worked out as a separate bipartisan deal headed toward and on the floor of the Senate for voting.
Vance, a Navy veteran and author of “Hillbilly Elegy,” who replaced retiring Republican Sen. Rob Portman, said in a brief interview that he knew Republicans would be skeptical of the “haphazard” regulations before it began. his desk for the bill, which increases the security breach. fines, increases inspections and strengthens safety standards.
“I understand basic care, but I don’t think care will come back in the last bill,” he said.
However, committees are not always the most fruitful forums for brokering agreements on legislation. Many of the major bipartisan pieces of legislation that reached the president’s desk in recent years — including the same-sex marriage bill and the gun control package — failed to pass in order.
Other Republicans suggested this week that they preferred to wait for a full report on Norfolk Southern from the National Transportation Safety Board, which could take more than a year, before deciding on congressional action. The NTSB’s preliminary report noted that an overheated wheel bearing could have been a factor in the accident, which the proposed legislation would address.
“I think it’s important to figure out what the root cause was and then review any congressional action once we have the facts,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (RN.C.).
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a co-sponsor of the effort, said it was clear that “changes” would be needed for the bill to gain more support.
Even those who were most in favor of the bill that President Biden has enthusiastically promoted did not sound happy. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (RW.Va.) called the bill “probably” a good “starting point” for the discussion about congressional action.
However, Vance said he felt good about eventually getting enough Republican votes to pass the bill, but that it would be a “mistake to rush” the process, which he agreed to begin with the Commerce Committee.
“I wouldn’t say we have a lot of people on either side of it, right now people are just figuring out where they land,” Vance said of the GOP vote count.
Brown said he was not opposed to the bill moving to the Commerce Committee if necessary, but believed the process needed to move quickly to take advantage of the political momentum.
“I think we’re going to get 65 or 70 votes because it’s the right time,” he said, adding that he believed the entire Democratic caucus would support the legislation. “We already have a strong bipartisan coalition, and that’s how you get things done here.”
Asked if Vance was in charge of whipping up Republican votes or if he would contribute as well, Brown said he planned to do outreach as well. “I’ve known a lot of these Republicans longer than he has, for sure,” Brown said.
Vance and Brown have responded to the disaster that has devastated the local economy and raised concerns about the lingering health effects as a moral issue.
“Basically I want to be a voice for this community’s anger and this community’s frustration,” Brown said. “People think that once the cameras go off, they’re leaving. I will not leave until Norfolk Southern meets its obligations.”
Brown says he hopes to turn “anger” at the train company into support for the bill.
Vance, who appeared alongside former President Donald Trump at the small community, has been far more critical of the Biden administration’s response than Brown. But he said his partnership with Brown in response was cordial and productive.
“We both agree there’s a problem to solve, and we’re trying to work together to solve it,” Vance said, though he added he would support whoever Brown’s Republican opponent is in 2024. “We we all need to be professional and put aside partisan differences.”
Brown, who worked with Portman on opioid legislation, infrastructure and other issues, said Ohio has a long tradition of bipartisanship. “There’s a tradition, and Portman and I built on that,” he said. “And I’m confident we can have that with Vance.”