The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Train derailment makes odd bedfellows of J.D. Vance, Sherrod Brown

The Ohio duo is pushing bipartisan rail legislation, but are facing skeptics among Senate Republicans

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) departs from the Senate Chambers at the U.S. Capitol Building on Feb. 13. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)
6 min

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) landed in the Senate just a few months ago after campaigning as a MAGA brawler. But on Tuesday afternoon, he stood in front of his new Republican colleagues and tried to convince them to support a bill backed by Senate Democrats that would impose a host of new regulations on a powerful industry.

Vance’s co-workers were polite, but delivered a clear message in response: Slow down.

“Nobody jumped up and said, ‘Sign me up,’” Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) said of the freshman’s “convincing” pitch for a package of rail safety regulations. “I didn’t hear anybody say, ‘Hell no, we won’t go,’ either.”

The derailment of a Norfolk Southern train carrying hazardous materials in Vance’s state has spurred the freshman senator into a surprising alliance with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), an at-times fiery populist liberal who is facing a tough reelection battle in the red state in 2024. Vance and Brown have joined in on sharp questioning of Norfolk Southern and the federal government’s response to the disaster in joint letters, introduced comprehensive rail safety legislation, and are appearing alongside each other to testify at a hearing that also features the train company’s CEO on Thursday.

The bipartisan alliance has drawn praise from locals heartened to see lawmakers putting aside their differences in the wake of an emergency, and Vance said last week that he was also pleasantly surprised that the environment in Washington wasn’t too partisan to make any action impossible.

“In reality, so long as you’re not being a total jerk about it, I think it’s possible to do things,” he told Politico.

But the effort is coming up against steep Republican skepticism of regulation, both in the Senate — where Vance and Brown likely would need around 10 Republican votes for anything to pass — and in the GOP-controlled House.

“Giving [Transportation Secretary] Mayor Peter Buttigieg a blank check, which is what the Senate version does, I’m not interested in that,” said Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio), who represents the district that includes East Palestine, the site of the derailment, in the House.

Vance’s Senate colleagues sounded more open to his proposal, but told him on Tuesday they want the legislation to go through the Commerce Committee and regular order, rather than being hashed out as a separate bipartisan deal that goes straight to the Senate floor for a vote.

Vance, a Marine veteran and “Hillbilly Elegy” author who replaced retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman, said in a brief interview he knew that Republicans would be skeptical of “haphazard” regulations before he began his pitch for the bill, which increases safety violation fines, increases inspections and stiffens safety standards.

“I understand the baseline caution, but I don’t think that caution is going to turn into the bill dying,” he said.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) discusses a bill that could strengthen rail safety standards. Can it pass? (Video: Ross Godwin/The Washington Post)

Committees are not always the most fruitful forums for brokering deals on legislation, however. Many of the major bipartisan pieces of legislation that made it to the president’s desk in the past few years — including the same-sex marriage bill and the gun control package — did not go through regular order.

Other Republicans suggested this week they preferred to wait for a full report on Norfolk Southern from the National Transportation Safety Board, which could take more than a year, before deciding on congressional action. The NTSB’s preliminary report noted an overheated wheel bearing could have been a factor in the accident, which the proposed legislation would address.

“I think it’s important to understand what the ultimate root cause was and then consider any congressional action after we have the facts,” Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) said.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a co-sponsor of the effort, said it is clear “changes” would be needed for the bill to get more support.

Even those more in favor of the bill that President Biden has enthusiastically touted did not sound overjoyed. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) called the bill “probably” a good “starting point” for discussion about congressional action.

Nevertheless, Vance said he felt good about eventually getting enough Republican votes for the bill to pass, but that it would be a “mistake to rush” the process, which he agreed should start with the Commerce Committee.

“I wouldn’t say that we have many firm people on either side of it, right now people are just figuring out where they come down,” Vance said of the GOP vote count.

Brown said he did not object to having the bill go through the Commerce Committee if needed, but believed the process should move quickly to take advantage of the political moment.

“I think we’re going to get 65 or 70 votes because the time is right,” he said, adding that he believed the entire Democratic caucus would back the legislation. “We already have a strong bipartisan coalition and it’s how you get things done here.”

Asked if Vance was in charge of whipping Republican votes or he would contribute as well, Brown said he planned to also do outreach. “I’ve known many of these Republicans longer than he has, for sure,” Brown said.

Vance and Brown have cast responding to the disaster that has devastated the local economy and sparked concerns about lingering health effects as a moral issue.

“Fundamentally I want to be a voice for this community’s anger and this community’s frustration,” Brown said. “People think that once the cameras are off, they are walking away. I’m not walking away until Norfolk Southern lives up to its obligations.”

Brown says he hopes to turn the “anger” at the train company into support for the bill.

Vance, who appeared alongside former president Donald Trump in the small community, has been far more critical of the Biden administration’s response than Brown. But he said his partnership with Brown in the response was cordial and productive.

“We both agree there’s a problem to solve and we’re trying to work together to solve it,” Vance said, though he added he would support whoever Brown’s Republican opponent is in 2024. “We all have to be professional and set aside partisan differences.”

Brown, who worked with Portman on legislation on opioids, infrastructure and other matters, said Ohio has a long tradition of bipartisanship. “There’s a tradition and Portman and I built on it,” he said. “And I’m confident we can have that with Vance.”