WASHINGTON – Supporters of the troubled Amtrak passenger railroad Tuesday successfully added back about half of a proposed cut in its federal subsidy as the House debated a $140 billion measure funding transportation programs.
By a 266-158 vote, Amtrak's House allies won an additional $214 million to bring its subsidy to about $1.1 billion for the budget year beginning Oct. 1. The underlying bill cut $394 million from the $1.3 billion subsidy Amtrak received this year.
Debate last year featured a lengthy battle between supporters of the railroad on one side and the White House and its allies in Congress on the other, who waged a losing battle to close money-losing routes.
Rep. Steve LaTourette, R-Ohio, sponsored the Amtrak budget boost but said it would still be insufficient to prevent Amtrak from falling into bankruptcy. But he was unable to locate sufficient budget cuts elsewhere in the bill to boost Amtrak's budget higher. LaTourette said he was confident the Senate would add even more money later this year.
"It pushes the ball down the field," said Amtrak supporter Rep. John Sweeney, R-N.Y. "In the (House-Senate) conference committee we will do better."
Amtrak runs trains through almost every state, which gives it great support among lawmakers despite criticism from the Bush administration and some lawmakers for excessive subsidies on its cross-country trains, high labor costs and questionable management practices.
Last year, Bush proposed eliminating Amtrak's operating subsidy altogether, setting aside funds for the Northeast Corridor and for some capital improvements. But after its plan was rejected, the White House regrouped and proposed $900 million for the railroad this February.
The underlying bill, which isn't expected to come up for a vote until Friday, contains $64.1 billion for programs whose budgets are left to Congress' discretion each year. The bill also funds the IRS, federal housing programs and the White House budget.
The bill is sprinkled with so-called earmarks, projects sought by lawmakers for their home districts, including 550 "economic development" projects totaling $250 million such as $500,000 to renovate a city-owned pool in Banning, Calif., located in the district of Rep. Mary Bono, R-Calif.
There's also a sheaf of highway projects, bridge renovations and grants to local mass transit agencies.
But the measure would kill federal funding for two much-maligned Alaska bridge projects, including the $223 million "bridge to nowhere" from Ketchikan to Gravina Island, the site of the city's airport but home to only about 50 residents. The Alaska delegation dedicated $450 million for the two bridge projects in a highway bill passed last year, and GOP leaders tried to kill the projects after critical media coverage.
But Alaska had kept its overall pot of transportation funding and planned to build the bridges anyway. The pending bill would prevent that.
Earlier Tuesday, the Appropriations Committee gave voice vote approval to a bill making cuts to health research, school aid and social services for the poor.
Despite opposition from Democrats such as Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, the bill breezed through the panel by voice vote after bill author Rep. Ralph Regula, R-Ohio, added an amendment designating $500 million worth of back-home projects for lawmakers. Republicans sponsored $300 million of the projects; Democrats received $200 million worth.
Meanwhile, the bill makes cuts to the National Institutes of Health, programs funded by the 2002 No Child Left Behind education bill, and it reduces the federal share for special education programs.
Overall, the NIH would be frozen at last year's levels, though almost every individual institute would face cuts.