The train derailment in East Palestine is giving the Senate GOP's handful of self-styled populists an opening to push the party in their direction.
Nearly two months have passed since a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, leading to an ongoing environmental crisis for the town's residents.
So far, Congress has yet to act legislatively to try to prevent a similar disaster. But Norfolk CEO Alan Shaw's second appearance before a Senate committee on Wednesday offered a trio of self-styled populists in the Senate GOP the opportunity to renew their arguments for stronger regulations for the nation's railways.
"Republican leaders have to appreciate that there is some tension between what the railways are doing, and the safety of lot of rural communities that disproportionately vote Republican," Sen. JD Vance of Ohio told Insider at the Capitol on Wednesday.
Vance, along with fellow Republican Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri, and Marco Rubio of Florida, are touting the Railway Safety Act of 2023. The bill that includes new safety protocols for trains carrying hazardous materials, installing detectors alongside railroads to prevent wheel bearing failures, requiring at least two people operate a train, and increasing fines for wrongdoing.
But while Democrats are broadly receptive to the legislation — both President Joe Biden
and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have endorsed the bill — most Republicans have shown a weariness so far to get behind the legislation.
"Republicans are so often resistant to any kind of regulation, whether it's environmental, consumer or public safety," said Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, one of three Democratic co-sponsors of the bill. "Vance is taking them to task on that."
In a Fox News op-ed published on Wednesday, the populist trio made a rather blunt argument as to why their bill "should be of special interest" to Republicans: those affected by train disasters are likely to be GOP voters.
"America's railroads run through their rural districts and red communities," the trio wrote. "When derailments occur, it is predominantly Republican voters—their voters—who bear the brunt and who rush to put out the fires."
In the age of Trump, Republicans have increasingly sought to portray themselves as the party of the working class, both in cultural and economic terms. In arguing against Biden's student debt cancellation plan, for example, the most potent Republican line of attack has not been that students must accept personal responsibility for their loans, but that those who benefit from the program are those that were able to get a college degree in the first place.
But the East Palestine derailment and the resulting legislative debate are putting that notion to the test, as Republicans continue to resist using the power of the state to enact new safeguards on the railway industry.
Rubio blamed the lack of Republican support on conservatives' "traditional views of government: that over-regulation, or regulation, is always bad."
But he argued that there's still a common-sense role for regulation.
"Every time I get on an airplane, I'm glad that's a regulated airplane," he said.
At a Senate Commerce hearing on Wednesday, ranking member Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said that there may be an "opportunity for real and meaningful bipartisan cooperation" on railway safety, but he has yet to back the senators' bill.
And Cruz spent much of his opening remarks assailing Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for proposing "big government regulatory proposals" to fix the problem.
Vance, speaking in favor of his bill at that same hearing, also invoked the phrase "big government" — but to argue that criticism of his bill as a "big government solution to the railway safety problem" was "outrageous" and "ridiculous."
"Vance can talk their language well," Brown later observed of his freshman Republican counterpart.
For his part, Vance offered an optimistic take on the bill's prospects, particularly in light of the introduction of a similar measure in the House.
"Look, I think if the vote were held today, we'd get 65 votes in the Senate," he told Insider.
"My view is, we got to put this thing on the floor," said Hawley. "Make people vote on it, and let's just see who votes no."