— -- In the wake of Tuesday night’s deadly Amtrak derailment, House Republicans blocked a Democratic amendment today that would have restored more than $250 million in cuts from grants for Amtrak's capital improvements.
Democrats worked to associate Amtrak’s funding with the accident, as Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Pennsylvania, offered an amendment to the FY2016 Transportation, Housing and Urban Development Appropriations bill to fully fund the president’s budget request for Amtrak.
“It should not escape the consideration of our committee that we actually are responsible -- not for the accident, but we are responsible for our country’s infrastructure as it relates to public investment,” Fattah said. “We don’t know the circumstances of this accident. We don’t know what caused it. But we do know if we don’t invest in the capital infrastructure of our country, there will be future accidents.”
Republicans stressed that investigators are still working to determine the cause of the crash, and subsequently defeated the amendment by a 21-30 vote. The National Transportation Safety Board confirmed later Wednesday that preliminary data shows that the train’s speed exceeded 100 mph -- more than 50 mph over the posted speed limit -- prior to the derailment. Further calibrations are being conducted.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers contended that the cuts are necessary to meet the budgetary limits imposed by a 2011 spending pact between President Obama and Congress.
“Any change in the caps under which we operate that would go beyond current law ... would require an understanding, an agreement between the White House and the two bodies of Congress to change those parameters,” Rogers said. “I’ve noticed the Speaker of the House has said he has an open mind about things, but all we hear out of the White House is consternation and attacks on the bills we’re trying to pass.”
“We have no choice but to move forward and we are, aggressively and expeditiously,” he added.
The hearing was not without drama. New York Democratic Rep. Steve Israel, the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee chairman, chastised Republicans for failing their constituents.
“Last night we failed them. We failed to invest in their safety, we failed to make their safety a priority,” Israel said. “We are divesting from America in this subcommittee and this committee and it doesn’t make sense and it defies the interests of the American people.”
“This is just a matter of simple priorities,” he continued. “Thoughts are wonderful, prayers are critically important, but priorities are important as well.”
Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, criticized Israel for politicizing Tuesday's crash when the New York Democrat has “no idea what caused this accident.”
“I was disappointed to hear [Israel] ... suggest that because we have not funded this properly that that’s what caused the accident when you have no idea what caused this accident,” he said. “Support if it you want to, but don't use this tragedy in that way. It was beneath you.”
Republicans admit that the bill funds the Federal Rail Administration at $1.4 billion for FY2016, about $200 million less than the $1.6 billion appropriated for FY2015. But aides say the cuts are made not to FRA operating costs or safety but rather “entirely” to Amtrak capital -- such as infrastructure improvements, which GOP appropriators believe is the responsibility of Amtrak.
The bill funds FRA safety and operations the same level as last year, $186.9 million, which was a $2.3 million increase from FY2014. The bill also funds National Transportation Safety Board at the same level as last year, $104 million -- about a $1 million increase from FY2014.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Connecticut, also unsuccessfully attempted to amend the bill to boost funding for collision-prevention technology known as Positive Train Control, or PTC, which was mandated in passenger rail safety legislation in 2008 but is behind schedule in implementation.
The committee ultimately approved the underlying $55 billion bill on a party-line vote of 30-21. The measure now heads to the floor for consideration by the full House.
*This story has been updated to include the NTSB's estimate of the train's speed.