Senate Democrats could throw a lifeline to embattled Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg next week during a congressional hearing when lawmakers will question the head of Norfolk Southern Railway over the recent Ohio train derailment.
Lawmakers are expected to grill the company’s CEO, Alan Shaw, in an effort that is likely to shift attention away from Mr. Buttigieg’s much-criticized handling of the disaster. While Republicans will also preside over Mr. Shaw’s testimony in front of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the forum is expected to be unfriendly for the railway chief.
“It’s a big CEO coming to Washington to explain why a major disaster happened,” said a senior Senate aide. “It’s kind of like walking into the lion’s den.”
Democrats have already signaled that, in addition to the derailment, Mr. Shaw can expect tough questions about Norfolk Southern’s decision to lay off employees while simultaneously buying back $10 billion of company stock.
“The American people should hear … why they thought it was a good idea to spend years lobbying to loosen regulations designed to prevent accidents like this,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. He questioned why the company “prioritized billions in stock buybacks instead of putting that money towards safety and towards their workers.”
Democrats on the House Oversight Committee are pushing the GOP majority to hold its own hearings on Norfolk Southern’s conduct about the incident. The pressure comes as the residents of East Palestine, Ohio where the derailment took place are still battling the effects of the derailment and toxic chemical spill.
Although not leading to any fatalities, the derailment caused a large chemical fire near the town. The contamination forced residents of the town to evacuate as toxic gas spilled into the atmosphere.
It was one of three derailments to occur on tracks owned by Norfolk Southern Railway in the past six months. A similar derailment occurred in October near Sandusky, Ohio, and another happened in mid-February in southeast Michigan.
The focus on Norfolk Southern shifts attention away from Mr. Buttigieg’s initial response to the East Palestine derailment. The transportation secretary, whose department has purview over America’s railways, has come under fire from Republicans for failing to visit East Palestine until nearly three weeks after the incident.
“It took Secretary Buttigieg 20 days to visit East Palestine,” said Rep. Andy Harris, Maryland Republican. “Yet now he says that the Biden administration will ‘never forget the people of East Palestine.’ I don’t think I’m alone in questioning the sincerity of those words.”
Mr. Buttigieg has claimed he was giving federal investigators appropriate time to survey the damage before visiting East Palestine. But he admits he should have been more vocal when the derailment took place.
“I was taking pains to respect the role I have and don’t have, but that should not have stopped me from weighing in about how I felt about what was happening to this community,” he said.
While Mr. Buttigieg did not immediately travel to the site of the derailment, President Biden’s EPA chief and other federal officials responsible for the chemical clean-up did. So did former President Donald Trump, who is running for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024.
Democrats say the explicit focus on Mr. Buttigieg is unfair, given recent history.
“If you remember Elaine Chao, she was the head of the [Trump administration’s] Department of Transportation and when there [were] these types of chemical spills, nobody was calling for her to be fired,” said White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.
• Haris Alic can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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