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McConnell stands in way of Brown, Vance victory on Rail Safety Act


Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has promised he will schedule a vote on a long-delayed rail safety bill sponsored by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who faces a tough reelection in a critical Senate battleground.

But the legislation is opposed by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who may block it outright or drag out its time on the Senate floor.

Brown is one of the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbents, and if he can help pass a major bill to respond to the rail disaster that struck East Palestine, Ohio, in February of last year, it could help him win in November — and help Democrats keep the Senate.

Brown, who is running for his fourth Senate term, spoke with Schumer twice earlier this year about getting a vote on the bill and said the Democratic leader promised he would schedule it soon.

“Schumer absolutely wants to help, and we’re working it. I talked to Schumer twice about it in the last 72 hours,” the Ohio Democrat told The Hill.

The legislation also has the backing of conservative Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio), who has clashed with McConnell over funding for Ukraine.

The Ohio senators teamed up last year on the legislation after a 150-car freight train carrying toxic chemicals derailed in the eastern part of their state nearly a year ago, creating an environmental disaster.

Sources in both parties say, however, it won’t get the nine Republican votes needed to advance on the floor, even though Vance, the lead GOP sponsor, insists there will be enough bipartisan support to get it done.

“I think it’s dead,” said one GOP senator familiar with the legislation. “It can’t get [enough] Republicans. McConnell opposes it.

“What I’ve been told is that Schumer wants to move it because he wants to help Sherrod — he doesn’t want to see it fail — but Republicans can’t deliver the votes. McConnell’s against it. All of our leadership’s against it,” the source added.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) speaks at weekly policy luncheon at the Capitol on Tuesday, January 9, 2024. (Allison Robbert)

The legislation also faces stiff opposition from the freight rail industry, a wealthy interest group that has given generously to Republicans and Democrats alike.

The legislation would enhance safety procedures for trains carrying hazardous materials, requiring emergency response plans and stricter regulations to prevent wheel bearing failures.

The failure of a sensor to alert the crew to an overheating wheel bearing was blamed for the disaster.

The legislation would require two-person crews for freight trains and would substantially increase fines for safety violations.

It would require the Federal Railroad Administration to oversee infrastructure improvements to railside defect detectors and prohibit issuing caps on inspection times to inspectors.

GOP senators months ago expressed concern over the Department of Transportation having too much power in putting into place the law’s new rules.

The Association of American Railroads, a trade group representing the freight rail industry, identified what it called “challenges” in the Rail Safety Act when it passed the Commerce Committee in May. It cited provisions mandating crew staffing models, expanding hazmat transportation requirements, “micromanaging” of the defect detector network and an expansion of manual inspection standards as problems.

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio)

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) speaks to reporters outside the Senate Chamber during a procedural vote regarding a nomination on Monday, January 8, 2024. (Greg Nash)

One Senate GOP aide panned the bill as a “giveaway to labor” and said “Vance is being taken for a ride.”

The railroad industry spent $69.47 million on lobbying in 2021, 2022 and 2023, according to Open Secrets, a group that tracks money in politics.

Union Pacific Corp., BNSF Railway, CSX Corp, and Norfolk Southern, the last of which operated the train the derailed in Ohio, have donated $1.44 million to Republican and Democratic candidates so far this election cycle, according to Open Secrets. Republican candidates have collected $923,000 of the donations, or about 64 percent.

Democrats have a 51-seat majority, and every member of their caucus is expected to support the measure.

That means Vance would need to muster at least eight other Republicans to overcome a filibuster if all Democrats vote to proceed to the bill.

The Republican co-sponsors include Sens. Marco Rubio (Fla.), Josh Hawley (Mo.), Mike Braun (Ind.), Mitt Romney (Utah) and Roger Marshall (Kan.).

Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.) voted for the bill in committee and is expected to do so again if it reaches the floor.

Vance says two other Republican senators have promised him they’ll vote for the legislation, though they’re staying anonymous for now.

“We’ve had commitments from the majority leader for a while that we would get a vote on it. I think we’re now talking about floor time and what might actually happen,” Vance told The Hill, adding “we’re at least progressing.”

“I think we’ll get our vote,” he added.

At the same time, Vance acknowledged that McConnell will oppose the measure, making it a heavy lift on the Senate floor.

“Sure. I’ve known that from the very beginning,” he said of McConnell. “I firmly expect him to be a no.”

The first-term Ohio senator said there are a “few provisions” he’d be willing to change in the bill but acknowledged, “I don’t think we can move enough” to win over McConnell’s support for the legislation.

Nevertheless, Vance says he’s confident he can still deliver the GOP votes needed to advance the bill.

“I am. I think we’re going to be good,” he said.

Vance downplayed the likelihood of adding the Rail Safety legislation to an omnibus spending bill — something that would be very difficult, given McConnell’s opposition to it.

“I don’t think we’re going to do an omnibus. I think we’re actually going to bring it stand-alone for a floor vote,” he said.

Brown, the lead Democratic sponsor, insisted “we think we do” have the nine Republican votes to advance the bill.

“The holdup is floor time,” he said. “We have seven Republicans publicly. … We need two more, but Vance says there are Republicans who will vote for it who are not public.”

Getting the bill passed would be a huge accomplishment for Brown, who is running for reelection in a state that former President Trump carried by 8 percentage points in both 2016 and 2020.