WASHINGTON – The House on Tuesday rejected moves by conservatives to cut taxpayer subsidies for Amtrak as backers of the money-losing passenger railroad cemented their position in the Democratic Congress.
By a 328-94 vote, House lawmakers emphatically dismissed a move by Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., to eliminate Amtrak's operating subsidies. Flake argued that subsidies of more than $400 per passenger on the most inefficient money-losing routes demonstrate that cross-country train travel no longer makes economic sense.
Rep. John Olver, D-Mass., chief sponsor of the underlying $104 billion transportation appropriations bill, credited Amtrak for squeezing savings of almost $100 million a year from reforms such as more efficiently deploying sleeping car service and curbing food service costs.
"There is not any passenger rail system anywhere in this world that operates without some operating subsidy," Olver said.
But conservatives said that after 36 years in business, Amtrak should not cost taxpayers almost $1.5 billion for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.
"Rather than pouring money into this colossally losing investment, we should stop pouring good money after bad," said Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., who lost a 308-110 vote on a bid to transfer $106 million from Amtrak to grants to local governments and housing authorities to house the homeless.
The White House has sought big cuts in Amtrak subsidies in recent years, only to be rebuffed by the GOP-controlled Congress. So it was no surprise that with Democrats now in control, Amtrak's subsidies survived.
Amtrak runs trains through almost every state, which gives it great support among lawmakers despite criticism from the Bush administration and some lawmakers over high labor costs and excessive subsidies on its cross-country trains.
The worst example, the iconic Sunset Limited train between New Orleans and Los Angeles, loses 62 cents per passenger mile, according to Amtrak's latest available monthly report. But Amtrak critic Pete Sessions, R-Texas, lost a 283-139 vote Tuesday afternoon to kill the route.
House leaders hoped to pass the funding bill late Tuesday.
The White House has threatened to veto the transportation and housing bill for exceeding President Bush's request by $3.4 billion, and lawmakers are increasingly concerned that many if not most of the 12 annual spending measures won't get enacted into law until late in the year as part of a foot-tall omnibus bill.
But Democrats say their differences with Bush over the portion of the budget Congress passes each year is just over $20 billion, only about 2 percent of that so-called discretionary budget. And they say many of the increases in the pending bill are being used to reject politically unrealistic spending cuts to programs such as Amtrak, housing and community development grants
The measure also contains almost 1,500 pet projects requested by lawmakers such as roads and bridges, as well as community development projects such as building a YMCA in Killeen, Texas, and demolishing abandoned buildings for a redevelopment project in Waterbury, Conn.
Meanwhile, the Senate began debate on a $37.6 billion measure funding the Department of Homeland Security. The bill is the first appropriations measure to reach the Senate floor.
The Senate measure also faces a Bush veto threat for exceeding the White House request by $2.3 billion, most of which goes to homeland security grants to state and local governments.