Hours after the fatal derailment of an Amtrak train outside Philadelphia, Republicans voted in a congressional committee to cut more than $200 million from the rail system’s budget.
Democrats, in turn, pushed for almost doubling spending on the system.
Such clashes occur with increasing vitriol, erasing a century of bipartisan support for railroads as a backbone of American commerce and travel.
“It’s a battle that has been waged for years,” said former Senator Al D’Amato, a Republican from New York who was a supporter of Amtrak while in office. Republicans in the South and the West have little need for passenger rail service “so consequently they are more reluctant to vote for funding.”
A for-profit corporation originally created under Republican President Richard Nixon and underwritten by taxpayers, Amtrak is now a favorite target of Republican budget hawks who portray it as a symbol of big-government spending run amok.
On the other side is a core group of primarily Northeastern Democrats whose constituents increasingly rely on Amtrak to travel between cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.
“Amtrak has been a hot potato for a while,” said Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor and author of a book released this week about improving U.S. infrastructure. “There’s this idea that the government shouldn’t be in these businesses in the first place, but then we wouldn’t have a national rail system.”
The budget battle expanded beyond Amtrak after President Barack Obama sought to make the revival of rail service across the country a centerpiece of his efforts to create jobs and fight climate change. More and better rail service could reduce carbon dioxide emissions from cars, he argued.
Republicans, including two potential presidential candidates, Florida Governor Rick Scott and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, helped to block those plans, actively opposing rail improvements for their states as a waste of taxpayer dollars.
The latest backdrop in what is an increasingly partisan squabble was a House hearing earlier Wednesday on a $17.2 billion transportation spending bill, including $1.14 billion for Amtrak.
Obama’s budget request sought $2.45 billion for the rail line including a more than doubling of infrastructure funds to maintain and improve stations, tracks, signals, passenger cars and locomotives.
Representative Steve Israel, a New York Democrat, said lawmakers had failed to make “safety a priority” in cutting Amtrak and other infrastructure initiatives.
That prompted a sharp retort from Republican Mike Simpson of Idaho, who said Israel was implying a connection between the budget and the accident, which he denied.
“It’s beneath you,” Simpson said.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Congress should spend more money on Amtrak and other transportation initiatives.
“There are extensive infrastructure upgrades that could be made that would benefit the traveling public and be good for our economy,” he said.
Republicans on the House Appropriations Committee blocked a Democratic amendment to add $1.3 billion to Amtrak spending, as well as another change to increase by $825 million for the adoption of positive train control technology, which can slow or stop trains before an accident.
Republicans blamed budget caps known as sequestration for the lower levels of funding.
But the mere idea of a government subsidized rail service is objectionable to some Republicans. Representative John Mica of Florida, a former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, referred to Amtrak as “a Soviet-style train operation.”
“I don’t have a problem giving Amtrak money,” Mica said in an interview. “Most of the time they don’t properly apply it, or they waste it. Congress does not trust Amtrak.”
The current intensity began when Republicans in the mid-1990s, led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich, created the Amtrak Reform Commission, said Mortimer Downey, who was an Amtrak board member and deputy transportation secretary during that time.
Kanter pointed back further, saying President Ronald Reagan set the stage for transportation privatization.
“The 80s were the beginning of a turning point because the ideology was that everything government touches doesn’t work,” she said. “It was the Reagan era.”