Red-state Democrats have been trying hard to get some distance from their party, first on Obamacare and then on the Keystone XL pipeline.
Now they have a new issue to add to their list: trucking.
An amendment in a spending bill on the floor this week that changes trucking regulations is putting liberal Senate Democrats at odds with their colleagues who are facing reelection this cycle or who hail from conservative states.
Trucking regulations came under the spotlight after actor and comedian Tracy Morgan was involved in a lethal crash involving a semi on the New Jersey Turnpike earlier this month.
At the center of the debate is Republican Sen. Susan Collins's amendment, which calls for a $4 million study and suspends a rule that truckers observe a 34-hour rest period, including two consecutive breaks between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., before restarting their next work period. The long-litigated regulation has forced truck drivers onto the roads at the busiest time of the day, Collins says.
If the driver in the New Jersey Turnpike incident had been on the road for 24 hours, as some reports show, he would have been breaking the law even if the amendment were enacted, she adds.
Collins's amendment passed on a bipartisan vote out of the Appropriations Committee this month and is included in the spending-bill package before the full Senate.
Since the measure moved out of committee, it has come under a steady stream of attack from highway-safety organizations as well as liberal senators. Led by Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a group of Democrats from blue states is pushing back against Collins's amendment.
Booker has won the support of the No. 3 Democrat in the chamber, Chuck Schumer of New York, as well as fellow New Yorker Kirsten Gillibrand and Sens. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey of Massachusetts, and Dianne Feinstein of California. Plus, Assistant Majority Leader Dick Durbin and Budget Committee Chairwoman Patty Murray opposed the amendment in committee.
They want to see the so-called hours-of-service regulations left in place but agree with Collins's call for a study of the rules. They argue that the regulations help prevent driver fatigue, which they say contributes to accidents.
There's the policy side to the trucking issue, but there's a political dimension as well, with Democrats from conservative states or in close races increasingly eager to demonstrate their independence from President Obama. For example, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, the chairwoman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is planning a vote in her panel on Keystone, which she supports and the administration has held up.
Disagreement over the trucking amendment among Democrats comes as they fight to keep the Senate, with the GOP needing to net only six seats to win control of the chamber. The disagreement also stands in contrast to the Democrats' Fair Shot agenda, which includes student-loan legislation and a minimum-wage hike — issues meant to unite the caucus.
Collins, of Maine, won the support of appropriators from red states as well as those facing tough reelection fights this year, including Sens. Mark Begich of Alaska, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Landrieu, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, and Jon Tester of Montana, who is not up again until 2018.
Landrieu, Shaheen, and Tester even went so far as to sign onto a letter that sought to dispel some of the negative media attention the trucking measure has been getting.
"It is appalling for anyone to deliberately misrepresent the facts of the provision by attempting to link the accident with this bill," the senators wrote in a letter obtained by National Journal. "We all want safer roads, and this provision is aimed at doing just that."
The debate has not only split some Democrats, but it also pits advocacy groups that back truckers' interests against consumer-safety organizations. The consumer groups recognize that they face a hurdle in overcoming a coalition that includes the GOP as well as a number of Democrats.
"Yes we are aware that there are Democrats who supported this in committee," said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "We have certainly worked on other David and Goliath issues before "¦ we hope to change some minds."