The Washington Post

Ohio train derailment makes odd bedfellows out of bipartisan Senate pair

Brown, Vance pitch safety legislatio­n against GOP skepticism


Sen. J.D. Vance (R- Ohio) landed in the Senate just a few months ago after campaignin­g as a MAGA brawler. 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 host of new regulation­s on a powerful industry.

Vance’s co-workers were polite, but delivered a clear message in response: Slow down.

“Nobody jumped up and said, ‘Sign me up,’” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said of the freshman’s “convincing” pitch for a package of rail safety regulation­s. “I didn’t hear anybody say, ‘Hell no, we won’t go,’ either.”

The derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials in Vance’s state has spurred the freshman senator into a surprising alliance with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D- Ohio), an at-times fiery populist liberal who is facing a tough reelection battle in the red state in 2024. Vance and Brown have joined in on sharp questionin­g of Norfolk Southern 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 that also features the train company’s CEO on Thursday.

The bipartisan alliance has drawn praise from locals heartened to see lawmakers putting

aside their difference­s in the wake of 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 action impossible.

“In reality, so long as you’re not being a total jerk about it, I think it’s possible to do things,” he told Politico.

But the effort is coming up against steep Republican skepticism of regulation, both in the Senate — where Vance and Brown likely would need around 10 Republican votes for anything to pass — 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 site of the derailment, in the House.

Vance’s Senate colleagues

sounded more open to his proposal, but told him on Tuesday they want the legislatio­n to go through the Commerce Committee and regular order, rather than being hashed out as a separate bipartisan deal that goes straight to the Senate floor for a vote.

Vance, a Marine veteran and “Hillbilly Elegy” author who replaced retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman, said in a brief interview he knew that Republican­s would be skeptical of “haphazard” regulation­s before he began his pitch for the bill, which increases safety violation fines, increases inspection­s and stiffens safety standards.

“I understand the baseline caution, but I don’t think that caution is going to turn into the bill dying,” he said.

Committees are not always the most fruitful forums for brokering deals on legislatio­n, however. Many of the major bipartisan pieces of legislatio­n that made it to the president’s desk in the past

few years — including the samesex marriage bill and the gun control package — did not go through regular order.

Other Republican­s suggested this week 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 an overheated wheel bearing could have been a factor in the accident, which the proposed legislatio­n would address.

“I think it’s important to understand what the ultimate root cause was and then consider any congressio­nal action after we have the facts,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-fla.), a co-sponsor of the effort, said it is clear “changes” would be needed for the bill to get more support.

Even those more in favor of the bill that President Biden has enthusiast­ically touted did not

sound overjoyed. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.VA.) called the bill “probably” a good “starting point” for discussion about congressio­nal action.

Neverthele­ss, Vance said he felt good about eventually getting enough Republican votes for the bill to pass, but that it would be a “mistake to rush” the process, which he agreed should start with the Commerce Committee.

“I wouldn’t say that we have many firm people on either side of it, right now people are just figuring out where they come down,” Vance said of the GOP vote count.

Brown said he did not object to having the bill go through the Commerce Committee if needed, but believed the process should move quickly to take advantage of the political moment.

“I think we’re going to get 65 or 70 votes because the time is right,” he said, adding that he believed the entire Democratic caucus would back the legislatio­n. “We already have a strong bipartisan coalition and it’s how you get things done here.”

Asked if Vance was in charge of whipping Republican votes or he would contribute as well, Brown said he planned to also do outreach. “I’ve known many of these Republican­s longer than he has, for sure,” Brown said.

Vance and Brown have cast responding to the disaster that has devastated the local economy and sparked concerns about lingering health effects as a moral issue.

“Fundamenta­lly I want to be a voice for this community’s anger and this community’s frustratio­n,” Brown said. “People think that once the cameras are off, they are walking away. I’m not walking away until Norfolk Southern lives up to its obligation­s.”

Brown says he hopes to turn the “anger” at the train company into support for the bill.

Vance, who appeared alongside former president Donald Trump in the small community, has been far more critical of the Biden administra­tion’s response than Brown. But he said his partnershi­p with Brown in the 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 all have to be profession­al and set aside partisan difference­s.”

Brown, who worked with Portman on legislatio­n on opioids, infrastruc­ture and other matters, said Ohio has a long tradition of bipartisan­ship. “There’s a tradition and Portman and I built on it,” he said. “And I’m confident we can have that with Vance.”

 ?? JABIN Botsford/the Washington Post ?? Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-ohio), left, speaks with Sen. Tim Scott (RS.C.). His alliance with Vance has drawn praise from locals.
JABIN Botsford/the Washington Post Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-ohio), left, speaks with Sen. Tim Scott (RS.C.). His alliance with Vance has drawn praise from locals.
 ?? Anna MONEYMAKER/GETTY IMAGES ?? Sen. J.D. Vance (R-ohio) at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 13. The freshman senator is making strides to investigat­e the derailment.
Anna MONEYMAKER/GETTY IMAGES Sen. J.D. Vance (R-ohio) at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 13. The freshman senator is making strides to investigat­e the derailment.

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