WASHINGTON — Congressional Republicans this week are side-tracking $1.5 billion in high-speed rail money that had been awarded to projects across the country.
In an adroit maneuver, GOP lawmakers propose shifting the high-speed rail dollars to Midwestern disaster relief. The ploy would help ease the federal budget deficit while underscoring Republican resistance to the Obama administration's rail plans.
"The flooding in the Midwest has been devastating," declared Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., adding that "we must be serious about controlling the deficit."
If Republicans in the House of Representatives succeed, California would lose $368 million, the Amtrak Northeast corridor would lose $795 million and a Midwestern high-speed rail corridor linking Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis would lose $404 million.
The Transportation Department announced the high-speed rail grants in May, after Florida rejected the money. The checks, though, haven't yet been sent.
"They're taking after this because it's sponsored by the president," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., complained Monday.
Frelinghuysen chairs the House Energy and Water Appropriations panel, and he added the funding shift as part of a fiscal 2012 energy and water bill. The bill is often a popular one as it provides money for flood control, safety upgrades at dams and other local projects.
The must-pass bill also can become a vehicle for controversial policy prescriptions, as well.
This year's bill would add $1 billion for the Army Corps of Engineers to respond to floods, tornadoes and other natural disasters in the Mississippi and Missouri river basins. The post-disaster work is considered an emergency, which usually means lawmakers don't need to offset the additional spending.
Since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, for instance, Congress has provided some $5 billion on an emergency basis without demanding budget offsets.
"We have always treated those as stand-alone items," Costa noted.
Nonetheless, the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee wrote its energy and water bill to include taking away the high-speed rail money. The committee on Friday rejected previous Democratic efforts to restore the funding on a party-line 20-26 vote.
"It is important for the federal government to learn to live within its means," Rep. Hal Rogers, the Kentucky Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said during the committee debate.
The funding maneuver prompted Costa and other members of the congressional High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Caucus to rally together in a blizzard of emails and phone calls Monday, though it's unclear whether they can force a House vote before the overall bill is approved later this week.
Politically, it may not be advantageous to force a vote if it's likely to lose in the GOP-run House.
The House and Senate eventually must reconcile their different versions of the energy and water bill. The high-speed funding transfer is among the divisive items that are likely to incite intensive negotiations.
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