Democrats bash proposed GOP cuts to Amtrak after crash

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Democrats on Wednesday bashed a fiscal 2016 spending bill that would cut funding to Amtrak, just hours after one of its trains crashed north of Philadelphia.

“I do hope we can keep the accident in mind [during today’s markup],” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said about the derailed Amtrak train. “Cutting the funding drastically does not help improve the services at Amtrak.”

At least seven people died as a result of the derailment, which also left at least 200 injured, authorities said.

“We cannot meet tomorrow’s challenges by slashing investments in TIGER, Amtrak and air traffic modernization,” Lowey added.

{mosads}The GOP-sponsored transportation and housing bill contains $1.13 billion for Amtrak for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1. That’s down from roughly $1.4 billion that Congress appropriated for 2015.

A spokeswoman for Republicans on the Appropriations Committee pointed out that those amounts are for infrastructure and construction, and do not cover operating costs or safety. The aide said the Federal Railroad Administration would receive nearly $187 million for safety and operations for next year, which is the same amount as for 2015.

The House Appropriations Committee advanced the bill in a party-line vote.

Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), the ranking member of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, which produced the bill, said the measure is “totally inadequate.”

The measure “does not provide adequate funding to address the capital needs required for safety.”

Several Democrats offered amendments that would boost funding to Amtrak, but Republicans blocked the proposals from being wrapped inside the measure. They would have busted spending caps.

Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said Congress “failed” passengers who traveled on the Amtrak train Tuesday night.

“Last night, we failed them. We failed to invest in their safety. We failed to make their safety our priority,” he said. “We are divesting from America in this committee. … It defies the interests of the American people.”

Later on, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said he was “disappointed” by Israel’s statement for suggesting that underfunding Amtrak caused the accident.

“Don’t use this tragedy in that way. It was beneath you,” Simpson said.

Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), argued that Congress is operating under tight spending limits, known as the sequester, imposed by a 2011 law.

“While adhering to tough levels, this bill makes the best possible choices within these tight budget constraints,” said Rogers, who added that “safety” remains a priority for the panel.

Rep. Ryan Costello (R-Pa.) said on CNN Wednesday morning that he would fight the cut to Amtrak’s funding.

“You put up some statistics at the beginning of the segment about some who seek to reduce the appropriations for Amtrak,” he said. “I’m not in that camp, I can tell you that right now. And if that bill shows a reduction when it hits the floor, myself and others, I think you’re going to see amendments to make sure that there is stable funding on the Northeast Corridor.”

President Obama’s budget director, Shaun Donovan, warned Rogers in a letter Monday that the White House opposes the funding levels in the bill.

“If they want this committee to have more capabilities, I think they would want to come to the Hill and meet with the House and Senate leaders,” Rogers said about the possibility of a future budget deal that could provide sequestration relief. “In the meantime, as we await that, we have no choice but to move forward.”

Lowey questioned when Congress would be able to strike a deal similar to the one passed in late 2013, which relieved sequestration limits for two years.

“When will we get that conference? June, July, September, October?” Lowey asked. “Let’s do a real budget resulting from a conference, do real bills, and let’s pass them.”

The bill would provide a total of $55.3 billion to transportation and housing programs, which is $1.5 billion more than the current fiscal year and $9.7 billion less than President Obama’s request. The bill would provide $17.2 billion to the Transportation Department, which is $1 billion below the 2015 level and $6.8 billion below Obama’s request.

Republicans also included riders opposed by Democrats and the White House, including one that would undermine Obama’s new policy seeking to normalize relations with Cuba.

This story was updated at 1:43 p.m.

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