Obama, GOP clash over rail plan

WASHINGTON — In a preview of the epic budget fight that will kick off in earnest next week, the Obama administration on Monday proposed a $53 billion plan for high-speed rail, and Republicans who control the purse strings said not so fast.

The quick clash over a relatively small item in a budget expected to total about $3.8 trillion that President Obama will propose next Monday underscored how tough it could be for Obama and the Congress to agree on federal spending.

Obama wants to increase spending on such things as education, energy, research and the nation's infrastructure. He calls them "investments" to help U.S. businesses speed goods and information, create jobs and compete against foreign rivals.

But Republicans who control the House of Representatives say that cutting such spending, not increasing it, is key to improving the economy. And Republicans who won governor's offices in Wisconsin and Ohio in November have rejected federal money already allocated for rail projects in their states.

The first clash came over the White House proposal to spend $8 billion in the coming fiscal year on high-speed trains, with $45 billion more coming over the following five years.

"If we do not, you tell me how America is going to be able to lead the world in the 21st century," said Vice President Joe Biden.

Biden, a regular train rider when he was a senator commuting to and from his home in Delaware to Washington, traveled by train Tuesday to Philadelphia's 30th Street Station to pitch the benefits of the proposal to build high-speed rail lines or improve speed on existing lines.

He said the plan would focus on three types of rail projects: a national high-speed rail network with speeds between 125 mph and 250 mph; regional lines where speed would be increased to 90-125 mph; and lines with speeds as much as 90 mph that would link to higher-speed national or regional lines.

Biden said the spending plan would build on $10.5 billion already allocated for rail projects — $8 billion from the 2009 stimulus law and $2.5 billion in last year's budget.

But that money was approved when the Democrats controlled the House of Representatives.

Republicans who lead key committees signaled Tuesday that the new GOP-controlled House will be much more skeptical, if not hostile, to taxpayer-subsidized rail.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said the first $10.5 billion was poorly allocated, mostly to projects that aren't what he considers truly high-speed.

Approving more money, he said, "is like giving Bernie Madoff another chance at handling your investment portfolio."