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One Year After East Palestine, Some Senate Republicans “Haven’t Looked” at Rail Safety Bill

It has been one year since a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, 2023. The disastrous derailment of the toxic chemical-hauling train killed animals and left residents with an array of ongoing symptoms, inc…

It has been one year since a Norfolk Southern train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, on February 3, 2023. The disastrous derailment of the toxic chemical-hauling train killed animals and left residents with an array of ongoing symptoms, including rashes, stomach pain, and respiratory complications

And since the disaster, members of Congress have had ample time to craft solutions to ensure such an incident doesn’t happen again. The Railway Safety Act, led by Ohio Sens. J.D. Vance and Sherrod Brown, is one solution. The bill would enact stronger safety standards for all trains carrying hazardous materials and make sure that trains like the one that derailed in East Palestine would be subject to those regulations. It would also mandate two-person crews for all freight trains (which rail workers have long advocated for), limit train length, and increase the maximum fines for violating safety regulations.

An accompanying bill in the House is led by Reps. Chris Deluzio, D-Pa., and Nick LaLota, R-N.Y.

While Vance has, in the past, expressed confidence that he has enough votes in the Senate, the bill appears to be short of the 60 votes needed to bypass a filibuster. The bill has 11 co-sponsors total — and even if all 51 Democrats vote for it, only seven Republicans have publicly indicated they will support it: Sens. Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Mike Braun, Mitt Romney, Roger Marshall, and Vance. Sen. Eric Schmitt, R-Mo., voted for the bill out of committee and is expected to maintain his support on the Senate floor.

An eighth Republican, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, told The Intercept that he doesn’t have a stance on the bill quite yet, but that he’s spoken with Vance and will “follow his lead.” 

When asked more broadly about provisions like mandating a minimum of two-man crews on trains or increasing fines for violations, Graham said he didn’t know whether he’d support such measures until “we put the whole package together, see how it scores, what kind of burdens it creates, what kind of problems it solves.” Graham reiterated that Vance’s opinion “will go a long way with me.”

Vance’s office was not available to answer questions on the state of the bill, which is supported by both Ohio residents and rail workers, and other Republicans surveyed by The Intercept were lukewarm on the bill.

“I think I’d better go back, and — I haven’t been briefed on it for three months, so I better not answer your question,” Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, told The Intercept. 

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., similarly said that he hasn’t looked at the bill — though it was introduced 11 months ago.

Sen. Ted Cruz, meanwhile, reportedly circulated a letter template to Texas House Republicans over the summer, prodding them to send the letter back to him and fellow Texas Sen. John Cornyn. The template cited corporate-friendly concerns with the bill, accusing it of enabling the government to “discriminate against the movement of American energy products like coal, oil, natural gas, and ethanol.”

South Dakota Sen. John Thune — the No. 2 Senate Republican — has called parts of the bill “very objectionable from the regulatory standpoint.” Thune is a former rail lobbyist who has used his position in politics to weaken rail regulation and has been showered in industry money.

Industry-friendly representatives — including from Americans for Limited Government, Americans for Prosperity, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute — also distributed a letter this summer, criticizing the bill on grounds such as that it “unduly favors organized labor” and that its proposals for more trackside detector use (which could have helped prevent the East Palestine derailment) conflict with their abstract conservative ideals like “market innovation.”

A recent report from Public Citizen shows that Norfolk Southern spent $2,340,000 lobbying the government in 2023 — up 30 percent from the $1,800,000 it spent the year before. As The Intercept reported at the time, the company spent $1,657,500 on lobbying and $200,000 on campaign donations during the summer, helping grease the wheels to weaken the rail safety bill as it went through committee. And those figures don’t even include similarly high-grade pressure from other large railroads and pro-industry associations.

Nevertheless, on the House side, the accompanying bill seems poised for success, given the slim one-vote Republican majority. It already has at least eight Republican co-sponsors, and with Democrats likely to support it, the bill would secure a majority. On Friday, co-sponsor Deluzio wrote a letter to House Speaker Mike Johnson urging him to hold a vote on the bill.

“The bill should be brought to the House floor for a vote and passed to reduce train derailments in a meaningful way; these derailments have been written off as collateral damage by the railroads and their corporate shareholders for far too long, despite the terrible impact on innocent families,” the Pennsylvania Democrat wrote. “Folks like us, who live along or near the tracks, refuse to be treated as collateral damage in the way of big railroads’ profits.”

Hawley, an original co-sponsor of the bill, expressed bewilderment that the Senate hasn’t voted on the bill yet. He said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is broadly supportive of Brown’s effort but not a co-sponsor of the bill, is a “key holdout” for not putting the bill to the floor, to enable the proponents to put people on the record. “Go down there and push it, because this has been my fear for a year. They will kill this in committee, and then kill it through process. And that’s clearly what they’re trying to do.”

“This is a priority to get done,” said Sen. Schumer. “Of course, we have to also work to pass the supplemental and keep the government funded,” referring to bills held up by Republicans that had delayed other legislation.

When asked about Republicans who said, for instance, that they haven’t looked at the bill, Hawley scoffed. “Ah yeah right, that’s classic,” he quipped. “The strategy for those who don’t like this bill is to drag this out, get as far away from the East Palestine crisis as they can, and so the public pressure eases off a little bit, and then just let it die quietly — that’s clearly been the strategy going on a solid year now.”

The Intercept also asked Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has reportedly been opposed to the bipartisan rail reform bill, his thoughts. He stared back silently, before The Intercept reiterated, “No position, senator?”

The leader of the Senate Republican caucus averted his gaze and kept walking. 

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This content originally appeared on The Intercept and was authored by Prem Thakker.


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