GOP-led House panel approves cuts to transportation grants, Amtrak

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WASHINGTON – GOP-drafted legislation that would impose cuts on Amtrak repairs, transit projects, and a transportation grant program championed by President Barack Obama sailed through a key House panel on Wednesday.

The $52 billion measure maintains funding for community development block grants popular with local governments and fully funds an upgrade to the Federal Aviation Administration’s NextGen air traffic control system. But it cuts from Obama’s request for housing subsidies for the poor and could lengthen waiting lists of poor people seeking housing vouchers. The Appropriations Committee approved the measure by a nearly party-line 28-21 vote after Democrats complained of cuts to programs they favour.

The House panel’s vote came as its Senate counterpart was preparing to launch bills funding agriculture and food programs, the Veterans Administration, and military base construction projects.

At issue in both House and Senate are the 12 annual spending bills allocating the about $1.1 trillion portion of the approximately $3.7 trillion federal budget that is approved by Congress each year. The process has been derailed in recent years and top lawmakers are trying to get it back on track.

But difficulties remain. The 2015 House transportation and housing measure is cut $1.8 billion below current levels, prompting Democrats to protest cuts to programs like so-called TIGER grants, which date to Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus bill and were funded at $600 million this year. The program funds a variety of transportation projects and Obama wants to nearly double its budget, but the GOP bill offers the administration just $100 million.

And the Democratic-led Senate panel appears likely to upset Republicans by resorting to budget gimmicks to squeeze additional money into domestic programs that have been shortchanged by an arcane dispute between the White House budget office and the Congressional Budget Office

The 2015 round of spending bills are essentially capped at current levels. But there’s actually less money available because of a $4 billion difference of opinion between the Congressional Budget Office and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget over how much revenue the government will reap next year from Federal Housing Administration mortgage insurance premiums.

To help make up the difference, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., says she’s considering moving more of the budget for foreign aid into overseas anti-terrorism accounts that are exempt from hard-won bipartisan budget limits adopted in December. The move is raising hackles with Republicans whose support Mikulski will need to advance the measures through the Senate.

The Senate panel action on Thursday is likely to feature votes to add white potatoes to the list of foods eligible to be purchased with vouchers given to low-income pregnant women and new mothers to help them raise healthy babies. Republicans are also likely to seek to give school districts waivers from new healthy foods school lunch requirements, a program championed by First Lady Michelle Obama.

The House measure approved Wednesday maintains a $149 million appropriation for a program that subsidizes air fares to rural airports. Amtrak capital grants would be cut by $200 million and employees of the passenger railroad would generally be limited to $35,000 a year in overtime.

A program that helps local governments build or rehabilitate housing units for the poor — often in partnership with non-profit groups — would face a $300 million cut from its current budget of $1 billion.

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