House GOP panel proposes Amtrak cuts hours after deadly train crash

WASHINGTON — A powerful House committee is weighing legislation that would slash funds for Amtrak by 18 percent just hours after a deadly train crash in Philadelphia.

The measure includes $1.1 billion for the passenger railroad next year. That’s a $251 million cut from current levels. President Barack Obama requested almost $2.5 billion, much more than his previous proposals. Obama’s proposed boost is mostly dedicated to capital investment in track, tunnels and bridges and includes $400 million in grants for capital construction along Amtrak’s Northeast corridor.

The Appropriations Committee began work on Wednesday on an overall spending bill for transportation and housing that totals $55 billion.

In recent years, cuts by House Republicans have been restored in House-Senate negotiations, but the railroad’s budget has remained generally flat.

Rep. Chaka Fattah, a Democrat representing Philadelphia, is expected to offer a $1.3 billion amendment to fully fund Obama’s Amtrak’s request but it’s likely to fail because it would break budget limits.

Top panel Democrat Nita Lowey of New York said the measure shortchanges important accounts, including those dedicated to transportation safety and capital construction. Lowey said the bill “drastically short-changes job-creating investments critical to hardworking American families, like roads, bridges, and rail systems and access to safe and affordable housing.”

But Chairman Harold Rogers of Kentucky said majority Republicans are hamstrung by automatic spending cuts known as sequestration that are forcing a freeze in the operating budgets of domestic agencies funded by lawmakers each year. These cuts are the result of a hard-fought 2011 budget deal between Obama and Republicans and are more punishing than originally intended because Congress has yet to find substitute cuts or revenues to replace them.

“We have no choice but to abide by the law,” Rogers said.

The White House and Democrats are pushing to boost domestic programs and insist that they’ll thwart GOP efforts to increase the Pentagon’s budget if domestic agencies aren’t given comparable relief. Republicans have padded war accounts — which are exempt from spending limits — to pad the Pentagon’s budget by $38 billion, a 7 percent increase that matches Obama’s overall request.

The measure is the largest of 12 spending bills considered so far by the GOP-controlled House and includes cuts to an almost $2 billion account for rehabilitating public housing and grants to states and local governments for housing for the poor. In a letter delivered Monday, the White House reminded lawmakers of recent rioting in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods and said the measure would “set back our efforts to end homelessness and shortchange housing support for very low-income households, including families with children, the elderly and disabled.”