updated 6/29/2005 9:36:57 PM ET 2005-06-30T01:36:57

The House on Wednesday rejected a big proposed cut in Amtrak subsidies that would have led to major cutbacks in rail service.

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By voice vote during debate on a spending bill that covers Amtrak’s budget, the House approved an amendment by Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, to add $626 million for Amtrak. That would bring Amtrak’s budget to its current level of $1.2 billion.

The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee had proposed spending $550 million for Amtrak and eliminating 18 routes, including every cross-country run and all long-distance trains outside the Northeast corridor. Those routes include the famed City of New Orleans route between New Orleans and Chicago, the Empire Builder across the Northern Plains and the Sunset Limited from Florida to Los Angeles.

The House later voted 269-152 to restore subsidies for 18 routes that lose more than $30 per passenger per ride.

Amtrak supporters said the railroad would have to shut down if it did not get the additional money.

“To slash Amtrak’s operating budget and effectively strand millions of passengers is irresponsible,” LaTourette said. “The bill before us today ... would force Amtrak to shut down all operations and declare bankruptcy.”

The additional money for Amtrak came from cuts elsewhere in the overall spending bill for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.

Some in Congress want overhaul
Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., said it is simply impossible to keep pouring money into money-losing Amtrak routes. The Sunset Limited, for example, costs taxpayers more than $400 per passenger. Instead, an overhaul is needed to keep the system viable, he said.

“Amtrak needs to get back on track, and it does not need Congress to continue to throw money at its problems,” Knollenberg said. “Like an overly spoiled child, Amtrak needs discipline, boundaries and restraint.”

Amtrak’s president and chief executive, David L. Gunn, said the vote “sends a strong message that many in Congress believe that we need to maintain a national passenger rail system.”

But Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta said the amendment “enables and encourages the wasteful spending and inefficient operations that have come to define Amtrak. Handing over more than a billion dollars with no reforms attached only gives Amtrak a blank check to continue misspending taxpayer money.”

In his February budget, President Bush proposed eliminating Amtrak’s operating subsidy and setting aside $360 million to run trains along the Northeast Corridor if the railroad were to cease operating.

The administration contends that eliminating operating subsidies would leave the passenger rail system with stronger routes and entice subsidies from local governments.

But Amtrak runs trains through almost every state, which gives it great support among lawmakers.

Broad House debate begins
The Amtrak debate came as the House kicked off debate on spending bill for housing and transportation programs and Treasury Department agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service. The bill provides a total of $134.9 billion in new spending authority, $7.2 billion more than currently, with much of the increase for highway programs.

Lawmakers braced for a two-day debate on the bill, including numerous votes on easing penalties on Cuba.

The bill provides $33.5 billion for the Housing and Urban Development Department. That is $1.5 billion more than current levels, but well below what Democrats said was adequate.

“Important HUD programs are crunched and zeroed out,” said David Obey, D-Wis.

The IRS would receive $10.5 billion, 3 percent more than current spending. Lawmakers blocked the IRS from closing 68 of its 400 taxpayer help centers.

The bill would also give federal civilian employees the same 3.1 percent pay increase received by the military. Civilian employees were slated to receive a 2.3 percent increase under Bush’s budget.

The bill is the last of 11 spending bills for the budget year beginning Oct. 1 to come to the House floor. House GOP leaders were determined to pass all 11 bills to avoid a pileup at the end of the year and the annual embarrassment of a foot-tall, catchall spending bill.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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