Train crash hardens fight over funding

A deadly Amtrak derailment near Philadelphia that killed at least seven people is intensifying a debate on Capitol Hill over investments in infrastructure.

A day after the fatal train crash, Republicans in the House approved a funding cut for Amtrak over the objection of Democrats who linked the proposed reduction to the wreck.

{mosads}The fight comes as Congress has less than three weeks to pass a new highway and infrastructure authorization bill. 

While the official cause of the crash was not yet known Wednesday morning, Democrats seized on the accident, linking it to funding cuts proposed by Republicans.  

“I do hope we can keep the accident in mind [during today’s markup],” Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) said about the derailed train, which was traveling from Washington, D.C., to New York City.

The route is part of Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, which many lawmakers rely on to travel back and forth to their districts each week. 

Investigators said in their preliminary investigation that the train exceeded a speed of 100 miles per hour on a curved part of the track that had a 50 mph limit. 

“Cutting the funding drastically does not help improve the services at Amtrak,” Lowey said. 

The GOP-sponsored transportation and housing bill contains $1.13 billion for Amtrak, down from roughly $1.4 billion Congress appropriated for 2015.

“Last night, we failed them,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), an appropriator. “We failed to invest in their safety. We failed to make their safety our priority. “We are divesting from America in this committee. … It defies the interests of the American people.”

Following the crash, Republicans on Wednesday blocked amendments offered by Democrats that would boost funding to Amtrak, including one that would provide $2.5 billion. 

They instead accused House Democrats of demagoguery and jumping to conclusions about poor funding and train crashes.

“I was disappointed to hear my colleague talk about the funding for Amtrak and to suggest that because we haven’t funded it, that’s what caused that accident, when you have no idea what caused the accident,” Rep. Mike Simpson (R-Idaho) said.

“Support it if you want,” Simpson said of the amendment to restore Amtrak funding, but he admonished Israel for linking it to the Philadelphia crash, saying it “was beneath you.”   

White House spokesman Josh Earnest pointed out that Obama’s budget calls for a $1 billion increase in funding for Amtrak and also criticized Republicans for backing cuts to the rail agency. 

Increased Amtrak funding is “good for our infrastructure, good for our economy,” he said, adding that is “not reflected in the Republican budget.” 

Earnest later said that the cause of the derailment is still under investigation and that he did not want to link rail funding to the incident. 

Despite the partisan back and forth, the GOP-led Appropriations panel advanced the bill, which heads next to the House floor. 

Amtrak funding has been a source of controversy in Congress for years. Since its inception in 1971, Amtrak has traditionally received about $1 billion per year from the federal government, but Republicans have pushed in recent years to eliminate the funding and privatize the company’s most popular routes. 

The privatization proposals in the past have run into opposition from Democrats and a group of Republican lawmakers who represent suburban districts in the Northeast and Midwest where Amtrak service is popular. 

GOP leaders have pushed in recent months to instead separate funding for the Northeast Corridor from its other routes, in an effort to force the company to streamline its other, less popular routes. 

One Pennsylvania Republican is already promising to fight the Amtrak funding cut that is being proposed by members of his own party if it makes to the floor of the House.  

“I’m not in that camp; I can tell you that right now,” Rep. Ryan Costello said on the “CNN Newsroom” show Wednesday morning in response to a question about the proposed cut. 

“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,” Costello continued. 

GOP leaders on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee promised Wednesday to work to find answers about the cause of Tuesday’s accident while the debate over the company’s funding played out among appropriators. 

“We are saddened by the tragic accident last night on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor in Philadelphia. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families and friends,” Reps. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) and Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) said in a joint statement.  

Democrats countered that Republicans need to offer more than their condolences.

“We don’t yet know the cause of the Amtrak train derailment which tragically took the lives of at least six people, and we need to let the [the National Transportation Safety Board] conduct a thorough investigation into the cause of the accident. However, we need to get serious about our transportation infrastructure,” Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Michael Capuano (D-Mass.) said in a joint statement of their own. 

“We agree with our Republican friends, we need to let the investigation take its course, but we absolutely do not need to make deeper cuts that will increase the $21 billion maintenance and repair backlog and further jeopardize the safety of the traveling public.”

Jordan Fabian contributed.

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