How Trucking Regulations Give Vulnerable Dems a Political Foothold

The issue helps red-state Democrats distance themselves from their party in an election year.

HINSDALE, IL - JUNE 10: Truck drivers navigate a rain-covered highway on the outskirts of Chicago on June 10, 2014 in Hinsdale, Illinois. Legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate that would ease restrictions on the number of hours truckers can drive each week is being questioned following a crash on the New Jersey Turnpike in which an allegedly sleep-deprived truck driver crashed into a bus, seriously injuring comedian Tracy Morgan and killing Morgan's friend, fellow comedian James 'Jimmy Mack' McNair. 
National Journal
Michael Catalin
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Michael Catalin
June 17, 2014, 5:25 p.m.

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.”

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