WASHINGTON, D.C. – A federal rail safety bill introduced by Ohio’s U.S. senators after the East Palestine train derailment was voted out of a key committee on Wednesday.
“The legislation is agreed to,” Sen. Maria Cantell, D-Washington, said after members of the Senate Commerce Committee voted 16 to 11 to advance the Railway Safety Act.
The legislation was introduced by Republican Sen. JD Vance and Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in the wake of February’s toxic derailment in the northeast Ohio village.
“We cannot undo the psychological, economic, and physical toll of the derailment in East Palestine, but I guarantee you, whether it’s tomorrow or next week or next year, there will be another East Palestine in this country if we do not pass the Railway Safety Act,” Vance, a member of the committee, said during Wednesday’s markup.
For Vance, a freshman who took office in January, the derailment created a scenario where he was almost immediately pitching a sweeping piece of legislation to his Republican colleagues. To date, he has convinced at least six of them to join him and Senate Democrats in supporting it.
At Wednesday’s markup, Vance earned praise from Cantwell, the Democratic chair of the panel.
“You’ve come to the Senate and you’ve hit the ground running. And I appreciate that,” she said.
The Railway Safety Act would establish new safety standards for trains carrying hazardous materials, strengthen inspections and scans of trains, require two-person crews on each Class 1 freight train, increase fines imposed on rail companies for wrongdoing, and expand funding for hazmat training for first responders.
While Vance has grown GOP support for the bill, not every Senate Republican is a fan.
“I remain concerned that this bill is overly and needlessly prescriptive in certain places,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the top Republican on the committee, said Wednesday.
Cruz explained he is worried the bill would give President Joe Biden’s administration more say over how American energy products are transported, something Vance rejected.
Cruz also warned the legislation does not have enough Republican support to reach the 60-vote threshold in the Senate to overcome a filibuster.
“I’m very skeptical of that. I heard what Senator Cruz said. I was frankly surprised by it because I think it has, clearly, 60 votes in the Senate right now,” Vance later told Spectrum News.
In a separate interview, Brown expressed the same confidence as Vance and argued changes made to the bill since it was first introduced in March have not watered it down, but have allowed it to gain more bipartisan support, including from Biden and former President Donald Trump.
“This bill is still strong. I speak with Senator Vance, our staffs speak all the time,” Brown said.
He added, “The support of the former president and the sitting president, together, will matter on this bill.”
The next step is for the full Senate to vote on the Railway Safety Act, likely in the coming weeks. If it passes, it would go to the House, where Republicans, who are in the majority, have expressed skepticism over increased rail regulation.
A bipartisan group of House members from Ohio have written their own bill that they hope can be merged with this Senate version.
On Wednesday, Representatives Bill Johnson (R) and Emilia Sykes (D), who have led the effort on the House bill, provided Spectrum News with separate statements in response to the Senate panel’s vote:
“I’m encouraged at learning the legislation authored by Senators Vance and Brown advanced through the Senate Commerce Committee,” Johnson, who represents East Palestine, said. “Of course, the Senate bill must now be reconciled with our bipartisan legislation in the House so we can get something to the President that he can sign - to ensure what happened to the people in East Palestine doesn’t occur in another community.”
Sykes, who represents Akron, said: “Americans across the political spectrum, including the former president and the Biden-Harris Administration, all agree — we must pass commonsense rail safety legislation to prevent future train derailments and keep our communities safe. I am glad to see a bipartisan rail safety bill progressing through the Senate, and the House must do the same. Ohio Democrats and Republicans came together to introduce the bipartisan RAIL Act, now it’s time for the House Republican majority to pass the RAIL Act to protect Ohioans and communities across the country.”