WASHINGTON – A Republican-controlled House panel on Wednesday approved deep spending cuts to Amtrak’s budget just hours after a deadly crash in Philadelphia.
The Appropriations Committee backed a $55 billion transportation and housing measure after rejecting Democratic attempts to boost spending on Amtrak by more than $1 billion, including $556 million targeted for the railroad’s Northeast corridor, site of the derailment. The vote was 30-21 along party lines.
The GOP bill would cut Amtrak’s budget by $251 million, to $1.1 billion, for the upcoming fiscal year.
“Every day, tens of thousands of passengers travel our nation’s railways on Amtrak – a majority of those along the Northeast Corridor where yesterday’s tragic accident occurred,” said Rep. Chaka Fattah, who represents Philadelphia. “These riders deserve safe, secure, and modern infrastructure.”
President Barack Obama asked for almost $2.5 billion for Amtrak in his February budget, much more than he’d requested in previous years. Obama’s proposed boost is mostly dedicated to capital investment in track, tunnels and bridges and includes $400 million in grants for capital construction along Amtrak’s Northeast corridor.
There were early indications that Tuesday night’s tragedy may have been due to excessive speed. An Associated Press analysis of a surveillance tape found that the train was going about 107 MPH as it approached a curve where the speed limit less than half that.
“We must pass a multi-year transportation funding bill that increases – not decreases – federal investment in highway, transit and rail programs before other disaster occurs,” said Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md.
The vote came as Congress stares down a deadline in 18 days to reauthorize legislation to pay for highways and transit programs.
Amtrak is one of many flash points in the underlying measure, which Democrats say shortchanges important programs for the poor and contains giveaways to the trucking industry.
In recent years, cuts by House Republicans have been restored in House-Senate negotiations, but the railroad’s budget has remained generally flat.
Fattah’s $1.3 billion amendment to fully fund Obama’s Amtrak request failed along party lines after Republicans pointed out that it would have broken budget limits and left the bill vulnerable to procedural challenges.
Top panel Democrat Nita Lowey of New York said the measure undercuts important accounts, including those dedicated to transportation safety and capital construction. Lowey said the bill “drastically short-changes job-creating investments critical to hardworking American families, like roads, bridges, and rail systems and access to safe and affordable housing.”
But Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky said majority Republicans are hamstrung by automatic spending cuts known as sequestration that are forcing a freeze in the operating budgets of domestic agencies funded by lawmakers each year. These cuts are the result of a hard-fought 2011 budget deal between Obama and Republicans and are more punishing than originally intended because Congress has yet to find substitute cuts or revenues to replace them.
“We have no choice but to abide by the law,” Rogers said.
The White House and Democrats are pushing to boost domestic programs and insist that they’ll thwart GOP efforts to increase the Pentagon’s budget if domestic agencies aren’t given comparable relief. Republicans have padded war accounts – which are exempt from spending limits – to add to the Pentagon’s budget by $38 billion, a 7 per cent increase that matches Obama’s overall request.
The measure is the largest of 12 spending bills considered so far by the GOP-controlled House and includes cuts to an almost $2 billion account for rehabilitating public housing and grants to states and local governments for housing for the poor. In a letter delivered Monday, the White House reminded lawmakers of recent rioting in Baltimore’s poorest neighbourhoods and said the measure would hurt efforts to end homelessness and hurt families.
But the White House didn’t specifically object to the Amtrak cuts in the letter, sent by Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan.
On Wednesday White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest wasn’t pointing fingers about the accident, though he said more Amtrak funding would “benefit the travelling public and be good for our economy.”