The East Palestine disaster has started a quiet bipartisan conversation about rail safety. Really!
Sen. J.D. Vance has spent the past couple of weeks barnstorming around East Palestine, Ohio, skewering the Biden administration’s response to the toxic train derailment that thrust the town into national headlines. Like other Republicans who’ve seized on the accident, he’s had especially harsh words for Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, whom he’s accused of “talking about how we have too many white-male construction workers” instead of focusing on crashing freight cars.
But while Vance has savaged the White House on camera, the senator has more quietly been reaching across the aisle in Congress about crafting a policy response to the incident. Earlier this month, he and the three Democratic Senators from Ohio and Pennsylvania sent a joint letter to the Department of Transportation asking about potential rail safety reforms. Late last week, his office told Semafor it was already workshopping new legislation on the issue with members of both parties.
"We're talking to both sides,” a spokesman for Vance said. “We want as much possible support as we can get to ensure that something like this doesn’t happen again.”
You could say that the discussion about East Palestine has been chugging along on two tracks.
On track one, there’s the partisan brawl that’s dominated headlines, as Republicans have accused the Biden administration of shrugging off the plight of a town where residents are mostly working-class white Trump voters.
The attacks have included some rhetorical cheap shots — numerous Republicans complained Biden should have visited East Palestine instead of making a surprise visit to Ukraine — and a good deal of overt race-baiting by conservative talking heads.
On track two, there are early murmurs about bipartisan action to prevent similar disasters in the future.
“There will presumably be interest in bipartisan efforts on rail,” a spokesman for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who called on Buttigieg to resign over the crash, told Semafor. “There’s clearly an interest in making sure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
House Republicans and Senate Democrats are planning hearings and you’re likely to see both tracks make an appearance.
Politically, Republicans have treated East Palestine as a chance to put dents in Buttigieg, one of the Democratic party’s biggest stars. They’ve largely hammered him for failing to speak up in public about the derailment until 10 days after it happened, and for not visiting the site until last week.
So far, though, there’s little evidence the White House has mishandled or neglected its response to the crash. Federal employees were on the ground in Ohio shortly after the accident, and Environmental Protection Agency head Michael Regan, whose department is spearheading the chemical cleanup, has now visited twice. The state’s Republican governor, Mike DeWine, has been complimentary of the federal response and said Biden promised additional help as needed. “I don’t have complaints,” he said recently.
Buttigieg conceded during his visit to East Palestine that he could have commented on the accident “sooner,” but it’s also not obvious what role he’d play from his cabinet position given the agencies on the ground.
But one partisan back-and-forth between Vance and Buttigieg points to where the two might actually end up cooperating.
At one point, Vance speculated to Fox Business that the agency might have made a “screwup” by not classifying the train as carrying “highly hazardous flammable” materials, which would have required additional safety measures. But the department turns out to have been properly following the regulations, which don’t cover the sorts of chemicals the Norfolk Southern train had on board.
Buttigieg and other Democrats countered that the Trump administration had nixed proposed regulations on trains carrying hazardous materials — although, the rules wouldn’t have applied in this case either.
With both parties honed in on the same rules, there are early signs they may be able to come together on a fix, and possibly address other rail safety issues. The letter Vance sent with Senate Democrats asks whether there’s a need to extend the definition of “highly hazardous flammable trains,” expand the minimum size of rail crews, beef up train inspections, and do more for track maintenance. Vance and Rubio brought up a similar set of issues in their own separate letter to the Department of Transportation, as did Buttigieg in an open letter to Congress and the rail industry.
As his office’s spokesman told me, “there’s some overlap with the solutions Senator Vance sees and what some of his colleagues on the other side of the aisle see.”
Room for Disagreement
As Politico notes, it isn’t just hardcore partisans who have criticized Buttigieg’s failure to address East Palestine earlier. “There’s a tremendous value when a catastrophe occurs of a high-ranking official taking charge,” William Reilly, who headed the EPA under George H.W. Bush, told the outlet's sister site, E&E News. “The communication part is enormously important. And that did not happen here.”