'It shouldn't take a disaster' for Congress to ensure rail, aviation safety: Sen. Sullivan

The Alaska Republican also talked Trump's 2024 bid amid investigations.

March 5, 2023, 12:34 PM

Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan on Sunday shared his concerns about recent headline-making safety issues for America's rail and aviation systems, which he said underscored the need for congressional oversight.

"We need to be proactive, not reactive, with regard to these kinds of public safety transportation issues," Sullivan told ABC "This Week" anchor George Stephanopoulos.

In particular, Sullivan singled out the importance of legislative proposals and hearings by lawmakers as well as companies maintaining updated infrastructure.

The Republican lawmaker sits on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, which is set to hear testimony on Thursday from the CEO of Norfolk Southern, the company whose train derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, last month, spilling toxic chemicals.

"What do you want to hear from him [CEO Alan Shaw]?" Stephanopoulos asked.

"Well, I want to hear some of the issues that Sen. [Sherrod] Brown raised, and in particular some of the issues that related to the laying off of workers," Sullivan said. "It's not just going to be him. It's going to be government officials as well on what is happening."

Echoing Brown's separate appearance on "This Week" on Sunday, Sullivan said, "There's a number of train derailments that happened across the country ... And we need to get to the bottom of why these are happening."

Brown, a Democrat, and Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. Vance recently proposed a bill intended increase rail safety in the wake of the East Palestine derailment. (Norfolk Southern has said it wants to work to ensure there aren't future incidents like that one.)

"I'm actually glad that Sen. Brown and Sen. Vance have put forward some good bipartisan legislation," Sullivan told Stephanopoulos when asked whether he supports their bill. "I agree with Sen. Brown: It shouldn't take a disaster to have good oversight legislation to make sure that we have a safe rail system. But really importantly [what] I've focused on, George, is a safe aviation system."

Sullivan pointed to "several near misses" recently at various airports and "huge warning signs" about underlying problems.

Stephanopoulos asked if the lack of a permanent Federal Aviation Administration chief was "hampering" the safety efforts.

"I think it absolutely it is," Sullivan said.

PHOTO: Senator Dan Sullivan speaks to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 14, 2023.
Senator Dan Sullivan speaks to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 14, 2023.
Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters

President Joe Biden recently nominated Phil Washington to head the FAA, but Sullivan expressed concern over Washington's background: "He's somebody who served in the Army, honorably, but doesn't have a lot of experience with regard to aviation safety. So we'll see what happens."

"We need to be on this in terms of safety, now," Sullivan said. "Americans take for granted that their aviation safety, flying in America, is the safest place to do it in the world."

Sullivan said he had come away from the aviation hearings so far focused on needed infrastructure upgrades.

"One of the big things is they need [to be] much more aggressive focus on updating their technology and infrastructure. That's come out in the hearings. And I think that's something that we need to make sure -- again, proactively," he said.

Stephanopoulos turned the conversation to the ongoing war in Ukraine, asking for a response to Biden's hesitation to send F-16 fighter jets, with administration officials stressing logistical hurdles like training.

"They need these weapon systems now," Sullivan said of the Ukrainians. "And this has been a pattern -- an unfortunate pattern by this administration -- delaying critical weapons systems until we [in Congress] pressure them. They finally get them there, but it oftentimes takes way too late."

Sullivan said this previously played out with munitions like the Patriot missile system and the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, known as HIMARS.

"They've sent them only after being pressured by Congress. It took Patriots nine months," he said.

Stephanopoulos also pressed Sullivan about who he will support in the next presidential race. The senator played down the "hypothetical" possibility that former President Donald Trump could be under indictment while running in 2024.

"So, you'll support Donald Trump if he's the nominee, even if he's indicted?" Stephanopoulos asked.

"That's a huge hypothetical right now on the indictment issue," Sullivan responded. "We'll see if that plays out. But right now my plan is to support whoever becomes the nominee."

When asked about the indictment himself, Trump said Saturday that he would "absolutely" remain in the race for the White House. He has denied wrongdoing in the various investigations he faces.

On "This Week," Sullivan noted that there are other qualified candidates running or likely to run for the nomination.

"I think having a good, competitive primary with a new generation of Republicans, by the way, is healthy for our party," he said. "It's healthy for the country, and I plan on supporting the nominee who wins the Republican nomination."

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