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Railway safety push enters critical stretch with NTSB report this week

Railway safety push enters critical stretch with NTSB report this week

The National Transportation Safety Board is set to release its final report this week on the 2023 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, putting new pressure on Congress to act on long-stalled legislation to enhance safety standards.

Senate Democratic leaders took initial steps earlier this month to clear objections to the bipartisan Railway Safety Act, but GOP leaders remain firmly opposed to the measure.

And as we reported at the time, the bill’s lead Republican sponsor, Sen. J.D. Vance (Ohio), tried to get GOP leaders to see whether there was support for the legislation inside their conference but was unsuccessful. That’s in part because Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the top Republican on the Commerce Committee, opposes it.

While Democrats are largely united, the issue has highlighted the growing divide between traditional business-friendly Republicans and a newer crop of more populist conservatives who are closely aligned with former President Donald Trump.

In addition to Trump and Vance — a potential VP pick — the railway safety bill has support from GOP Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.), Roger Marshall (Kan.) and Eric Schmitt (Mo.), among others.

The legislation would impose new regulations for trains carrying potentially hazardous materials, while also mandating strict new penalties for violations of the new safety standards. The Norfolk Southern freight train was transporting toxic chemicals when it derailed in East Palestine in February 2023.

The railroad industry sees the newly proposed regulations as overly burdensome and unnecessary. Republican leaders want to be able to amend the bill if it comes to the floor.

“There are some things that need to be fixed. Obviously, there are some provisions in it that are good,” Senate Minority Whip John Thune told us. “And there are some things that were put in there basically as kind of a handout to the unions.”

The politics: Vance has been working alongside Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), one of the most vulnerable in-cycle incumbents, to get the bill across the finish line. Doing so would be a major boost for Brown, who faces an uphill battle to win reelection in November.

So this is another reason for Republican leaders — who oppose the bill on its merits anyway — to do whatever it takes to stifle the effort.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer could seek to hold a vote on the bill anyway in order to highlight GOP intransigence and give Brown a chance to vote for it. But the bill’s sponsors believe they are close to securing 60 votes, so they’re not giving up quite yet.

The release of the NTSB report could help them get there. At the very least, it’s an opportunity to put the issue at the front of senators’ minds as the August recess looms. There are just three in-session weeks remaining until then, and the last two are fairly open-ended in terms of what could be considered on the floor.

In addition to judicial nominees, there are several other long-stalled bipartisan bills that Schumer has been wanting to clear, including on social media, bank executive clawbacks and more.

— Andrew Desiderio

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