Senate Panel OKs Increases for Amtrak, Veterans

In the latest evidence that Congress is chafing at President Bush's limits on spending, a Senate panel Thursday rejected cuts to Amtrak (search) and voted to significantly increase spending for highways, airport construction and community development grants.

The Appropriations Committee also voted to effectively raise by $2 billion Bush's $843 billion limit for spending passed each year at Congress' discretion. That was done in order to take care of recently discovered shortfalls in the budget for veterans' health care.

The panel approved three spending bills by unanimous 28-0 votes. Taken together, the bills fund the budgets for the departments of Transportation, Treasury, Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs, as well as the federal contribution to the District of Columbia.

The increases to Amtrak's subsidies would permit the troubled railroad to keep open routes that required huge subsidies, such as the Sunset Limited (search), the Florida-to-California route that loses more than $400 per passenger.

Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta (search) has said the Senate measure could be vetoed unless significant Amtrak reforms are enacted. Still, the panel added $50 million more for the railroad than it had approved just two days earlier, bringing its total federal subsidy to $1.45 billion.

The House approved $1.2 billion for Amtrak after rejecting a bid by the Appropriations Committee to cut off funding for 18 of its most heavily subsidized routes.

The $81 billion measure funding veterans programs and construction projects at military bases contains $2 billion in emergency funds for medical services. That money doesn't count against Bush's tight spending caps. All told, the veterans' medical services account would receive $23.3 billion for the budget year starting Oct. 1 — 16 percent more than current levels.

Senators promised that an additional $1.5 billion in veterans' health care funds just to last through Sept. 30 will pass as part of a separate Interior Department funding bill — which would be the first of Congress' 11 spending bills to reach Bush's desk — before Congress adjourns for its August recess next week.

The transportation bill provides $40.1 billion for highway construction — more than $5 billion above Bush's request — as well as $8.2 billion in transit subsidies and $14.8 billion for the Federal Aviation Administration. In the latter instance, the panel rejected the White House's $500 million cut in airport construction grants.

The Senate panel also rejected Bush's proposal for a big cut to the Community Development Block Grant program, a favorite way for lawmakers to funnel federal dollars back to their states. The panel divided up $330 million for "economic development" and "neighborhood initiatives" such as a Boy Scout Camp near Talkeetna, Alaska; a $1 million parking lot for the Joslyn Art Museum campus in Omaha, Neb.; and $200,000 for a museum and information center for the statue of Ponca Chief Standing Bear in Ponca City, Okla.

It took 18 pages in a report accompanying the transportation and housing bill to list all of these home-state projects.

The panel reduced by $1 billion a proposed cut to already enacted funding for housing programs. Bush proposed a $2.5 billion cut to current-year funding to free up money for next year's programs.

The Transportation bill also contains language to block new Treasury Department rules that have slowed the pace of U.S. food exports to Cuba by requiring U.S. exporters be paid in cash before a shipment can be sent. That language has attracted a veto threat from the White House, but the imbroglio could be messy as it pits farm-state Republicans against Cuban-American supporters of the U.S. embargo of Cuba, another potent GOP constituent group.

Federal workers would receive a 3.1 percent pay raise next year, matching the raises slated for military employees.