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GOP rejects Fattah call to boost Amtrak funding after crash

WASHINGTON – Philadelphia Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) proposed a $1.3 billion boost to Amtrak funding Wednesday, roughly 13 hours after the train derailment in his home city, but was blocked by Republicans who raised concerns about increased spending.

The debate in a House Appropriations Committee meeting came as Democrats – acknowledging they don't know the cause of the incident Tuesday night – warned that a lack of investment in infrastructure prevents critical maintenance and could lead to more accidents. The committee was considering a GOP spending bill that would cut Amtrak funding by around $200 million.

"We should have some concern about the safety of our citizens, those who have elected us," Fattah said in a morning hearing on a spending bill covering transportation, housing and other areas. While officials don't know what caused the accident, "we do know if we don't invest in the capital infrastructure of our country, there will be future accidents."

Lawmakers from New Jersey, Delaware and New York joined Fattah. The accident, said Rep. Nita Lowey (D., N.Y.) "can serve as a reminder of the importance of safety programs that are underfunded in this bill." Rep. Steve Israel (D., N.Y.) said "last night, we failed" passengers. "We failed to invest in their safety."

But Republicans warned against jumping to solutions while the investigation is still underway.

"Don't use this tragedy in that way – it was beneath you," U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson (R., Idaho) fired back at Israel.

And GOP lawmakers said spending caps agreed to by both parties prevent them from adding new money to spending bills without finding offsetting cuts.

"The concept that it is always, no matter what, that more money is the solution, is not always the case," said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.), in arguing against Fattah's proposal. "We're dealing with an unknown, we do not have all the facts."

Outside a separate hearing, Rep. Bill Shuster (R., Pa.,) chairman of the House transportation committee, said lawmakers need to understand what happened before proposing solutions. Linking funding to the accident is "premature," he said.

"Anytime I see an elected official stand up and say what they think happened when they don't know, I think is just wrong," Shuster said.

Fattah's proposal, which would have more than doubled the $1.14 billion proposed for Amtrak funding, was defeated 21-30 in the committee.

The argument continued elsewhere, particularly among lawmakers from the northeast corridor, many of whom take the same rail line themselves.

U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello (R., Pa.), of Chester County, told CNN that he disagrees with the proposed cuts to Amtrak. If the funding bill reaches the House floor unchanged, "I think you're going to see amendments to make sure that there is stable funding."

"We don't know what caused this accident," Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.) said on the Senate floor, "but we do know that we need to invest in 21st century systems and equipment and stop relying on patchwork-upgrades to old rusted 19th century rail lines."

Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R., Pa.) of Bucks County said, "while there is no doubt this situation is a tragedy, it is important we let the investigation bear out the facts before proposing prescriptions. Amtrak is a worthy investment and its leaders must be open about the circumstances and accountable for what needs to be done."

You can follow Tamari on Twitter or email him at jtamari@phillynews.com.

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