Sens. JD Vance and John Fetterman, populists from different parties, worked together on a rail safety bill.
Fetterman accused Vance of "silly performance art" over his doomed effort to ban mask mandates.
Vance argued his mask crusade isn't distracting from the rail bill, and that he's been building support for it.
Two of the Senate's most prominent self-styled populists — each from different parties — are at loggerheads amid the stalled railway safety bill they drafted together.
During a sit-down with reporters in Sen. John Fetterman's office on Wednesday, Insider asked the Pennsylvania Democrat about his experience working with Sen. JD Vance, a Republican from the neighboring state of Ohio.
The duo, among others, are the prime co-sponsors of the Railway Safety Act, a bill to improve safety protocols for trains carrying hazardous materials. The senators introduced the bill together following a disastrous train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, in February, where potentially toxic chemicals were released into the atmosphere and the local groundwater. The bill has been stalled since it passed out of the Senate Commerce Committee in May.
After indicating that the rail bill may be just one vote away from getting the necessary 60 votes to pass the Senate, Fetterman laced into Vance for his effort to ban mask mandates, which he's pursuing this week.
Fetterman said it was "frustrating" that Vance was "fixating" on "silly performance art" with his Freedom to Breathe Act, a bill to prevent the federal government from instituting mask mandates on public transportation, airplanes, or public schools until the end of 2024.
"You know, 'breathe free' or whatever it's called," Fetterman mockingly said, adding that Vance needed to be "focusing on getting this finished and taken care of," referring to the rail bill.
Vance plans to seek unanimous consent for the passage of the mask bill on Thursday — a procedural move that allows any senator to secure the immediate passage of a bill without a full chamber vote, unless someone rises to object. Senators of both parties typically use the procedure either to make a political point or to pass bills that are non-controversial.
Fetterman argued that Vance "wants to put up an act that's going to go nowhere" instead of being "worried about something that really can be transformative for rail safety."
Asked about Fetterman's comments, Vance defended himself.
"I think it's an important issue, and I care about it, and he's free to disagree," said Vance. "There are a lot of things that happen in this building, and there are a lot of issues that we care about, most of which John and I are going to come down on opposite sides of."
"We've been working the railway bill really hard," Vance continued. "We're also gonna have to work other things hard as well because there are a lot of issues that the people who elected me care about."
Vance added that he's had "pretty minimal" day-to-day interactions with Fetterman as they've worked to build support for the bill.
"Most of my work on the railway bill has been persuading Republican colleagues to sign on to the bill," said Vance. "Obviously, we talked a lot when we were cutting the initial draft of the bill, and we've been doing separate things to try to get it over the hill."
Vance also pushed back on the idea that his effort was performative — even though the return of mask mandates amid a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases has been limited to a scattered set of jurisdictions and organizations across the country.
Though the senator from Ohio said he expects a senator to object to his bill tomorrow, he initially thought there was a "chance that it would actually sail through."
"The whole argument here is that nobody is trying to reimpose mask mandates on the country," said Vance. "Well, if that's true, why can't we just get this thing through easily?"
Fetterman, speaking about COVID-19 in his office earlier, agreed that the return of masking was unlikely.
"It's bizarre," he said of Vance's effort. "No one is trying to force masks back on."
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