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House panel gives huge boost to high-speed rail projects

(The Associated Press circulated the following on July 17, 2009.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. Funding for a signature high-speed initiative of President Barack Obama would get an enormous boost under a transportation spending bill approved Friday by a key House panel.

Obama had asked for $1 billion for construction of a new high-speed rail system and other intercity rail lines, which would come on top of $8 billion provided in Obama's economic stimulus bill in February.

But the Appropriations Committee provided $4 billion for the initiative as it approved a $123 billion measure funding transportation and housing programs. Rep. John Olver, D-Mass., said that the earlier appropriation had generated about $70 billion in grant requests for high-speed rail projects across the country.

Democrats turned back a GOP effort to take $3 billion of the rail money and deposit it in the Highway Trust Fund, which is expected to go broke next month.

The measure also gives the money-losing Amtrak passenger railroad a $1.5 billion subsidy.

Housing programs would also receive a generous boost, including $27 billion for the Section 8 program to finance housing vouchers for 3.4 million people, a 10 percent increase.

The free-spending culture of the committee was on display as well. Republican Tom Latham of Iowa identified almost $800 million worth of budget savings by lowering subsidies in the Department of Housing and Urban Development's program that guarantees reverse mortgages for seniors. Latham proposed slightly lowering the amounts of the federally insured mortgages to eliminate the need for the subsidies.

Democrats embraced the idea. But rather than returning the savings to taxpayers, they instead used them to beef up funding for the Section 8 program.

The panel then turned to a huge measure funding labor, health and education programs. The $730.5 billion measure combines $163.4 billion in so-called discretionary spending _ the amount over which the panel has direct control _ with $567 billion for federal benefit programs, chiefly Medicare and the Medicaid health care programs for the poor and disabled.

The measure provides an $11.2 billion, 7 percent increase for discretionary programs such as federal grants to school districts, health research, community health centers, substance abuse programs and heating subsidies for the poor.

It provides for a $200 increase to bring the maximum Pell Grant award to $5,550.

On the floor, a final vote loomed on a $33.3 billion measure funding energy programs and water projects. The measure fulfills a campaign promise by Obama to close the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste facility in Nevada.

The decision to close the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada -- a hotly contested project 25 years and $13.5 billion in the making -- leaves the country without a long-term solution for storing highly radioactive waste from nuclear power plants.

That bipartisan measure funds everything from clean energy research to restoring oyster beds in the Chesapeake Bay. Unlike virtually every other spending bill moving through Congress for the upcoming budget year, the measure essentially freezes spending for the programs covered by it. Most of the other spending bills contain spending increases far exceeding inflation.

Monday, July 20, 2009

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