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The Hill
The Hill
15 Apr 2023
Zack Budryk

NextImg:Sherrod Brown, JD Vance form unlikely partnership

The environmental disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, has resulted in a rare display of bipartisanship from the state’s two senators, a hardline, Trump-endorsed, vocal critic of President Biden and a progressive populist facing the reelection fight of his life.  

In the wake of the February train derailment that released toxic chemicals into the Ohio town, Sens. J.D. Vance (R) and Sherrod Brown (D) have been atypically united in their efforts to pass legislation bolstering railroad safety and to ensure residents are not forgotten as they grapple with the damage and dangers left behind by the crash. 

Vance told The Hill his collaboration with Brown on the rail safety bill shouldn’t necessarily be taken as a signal of deeper bipartisan cooperation, either between the two men or the two parties, but rather that it’s an issue the two of them have a particular stake in.  

“I don’t necessarily think it’s a model for any particular issue, [but] I think that East Palestine was an issue I cared a lot about, an issue where there was some common ground with Senator Brown,” Vance said. 

He signaled, however, that he would be open to working across the aisle on other issues in the future. “I don’t know that it’s a model, [but] I certainly want to get more things done, so I hope so,” he said.  

In an interview with The Hill, Brown noted that this is far from the first time he’s found common ground with a Republican colleague from Ohio. He said he’s been doing so since his election in 2006, first with former Sen. George Voinovich and then Vance’s predecessor, Sen. Rob Portman.  

The Buckeye State has grown steadily redder during Brown’s time in office, voting for former President Trump twice even as other ancestrally Democratic states like Pennsylvania and Michigan flipped back to Biden in 2020.   

The progressive senator has handily won reelection twice, but his collaboration with Vance comes ahead of what promises to be a tough battle. In 2024, Brown will face a contest with a presidential race at the top of the ballot for the first time in more than a decade. The three-term Democrat is considered one of the most vulnerable senators in his party in the coming cycle, along with other red-state senators like Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.).   

The conservative Vance, meanwhile, is more in line with the state’s current voting patterns — though he recently won his seat only after a hard-fought contest of his own. He triumphed in a bitter 2022 GOP primary after securing an endorsement from Trump, of whom Vance was once a harsh detractor but who he embraced after entering politics. The first-time candidate went on to defeat former Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) in a similarly bruising general election.   

The Ohio senators’ political differences have not prevented them from working shoulder to shoulder following the East Palestine crash, however. Vance has even blasted libertarian elements of his own party that oppose reforming federal oversight of rail safety, though he has seldom named names.

The senators’ response has not been entirely nonpartisan — Vance has excoriated the Biden administration for its response as well. But both Brown and Vance have aimed much of their fire at Norfolk Southern, the railroad that operated the derailed train and that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is holding financially responsible for cleanup.   

The Feb. 3 East Palestine derailment spilled several cars’ worth of hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, a cancer-causing substance used in the production of plastics. Norfolk Southern conducted a controlled burn days later, citing fears of an explosion. While local and federal officials have said the town is safe for residents, testing and cleanup are ongoing and both EPA Administrator Michael Regan and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) advised residents to use bottled water in the weeks following the derailment. 

The disaster has provoked widespread scrutiny of Norfolk Southern and the freight railroad industry more broadly over railroads’ history of lobbying against stricter safety regulations.  

“I think that Vance and I have been to the same places and spoke to the same people who expressed the same concerns: that [Norfolk Southern] is a corporation that abused the public trust,” Brown told The Hill in an interview.  

“They’ve spent decades and decades and decades exercising their power in Washington” to avoid safety regulations, he said, adding that Vance’s conservatism may set them on opposite sides of other issues, but the two are united in seeking accountability from the railroad. 

Shortly after the derailment, Brown and Vance introduced the Railway Safety Act with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Pennsylvania Sens. John Fetterman (D) and Bob Casey (D).   

The bill would impose a number of safety standards that rail worker unions have repeatedly pressed for, including two-person crews on trains. It would also give the federal government, rather than private railroads, oversight over railroad-track heat sensors. The sensors on the tracks running past East Palestine were shown as growing steadily hotter leading up to the February crash, but they did not reach the temperature at which trains are required to stop until it was too late to avoid derailment.   

Whether the measure will pass in the GOP-controlled House is uncertain, but Brown expressed confidence to The Hill that backers of the proposal could secure a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate.  

Both Brown and Vance testified in March before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, speaking in favor of the bill. Vance said Senate colleagues have approached the negotiations “in complete good faith,” but expressed frustration that people — who he did not name — “seem to think that any public safety enhancement for the rail industry is a violation of the free market.”  

Vance has pushed for the bill to go directly to the Senate floor as part of a bipartisan deal, while his Republican colleagues have indicated they prefer it to go through the regular order process in the Senate Commerce Committee.   

Vance was less sanguine than Brown about the bill’s chances but still optimistic, telling The Washington Post, “I understand the baseline caution [among GOP senators], but I don’t think that caution is going to turn into the bill dying.”