House Speaker John Boehner ripped a reporter Thursday for questioning him about Democrats’ efforts to tie Amtrak funding to Tuesday’s deadly train crash.
“Are you really going to ask such a stupid question?” Boehner told the reporter before she could finish her question. “Listen: You know they (Democrats) started this yesterday. It’s all about funding, it’s all about funding. Obviously, it’s not about funding.”
Instead, Boehner insisted that the train’s speed – twice the speed limit at the curve where the train derailed – was the only relevant factor.
“The train was going twice the speed limit. Adequate funds were there – no money was cut from rail safety, and the House passed a bill earlier this spring to reauthorize Amtrak and authorize a lot of these programs,” Boehner said. “It’s hard for me to imagine that people take the bait on some of the nonsense that gets spewed around here.”
For years, Republicans have pushed to cut spending for domestic programs, and most have looked to lower spending on Amtrak in a bid to privatize the commuter railway. On Wednesday, less than 24 hours after the New York-bound train crashed, the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee voted to reduce grants to Amtrak by $252 million – a drop of about 15% from last year’s level, though the cut would apply only to Amtrak’s capital spending and wouldn’t touch funding levels for safety and operations.
The appropriations committee also defeated an amendment that would have spent $825 million to fund a specific infrastructure improvement known as Positive Train Control, a system that combines GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor trains and stop them from colliding, derailing or speeding.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, called Boehner’s comments “patently false.”
“Experts have made clear that Positive Train Control could have prevented the tragedy in Philadelphia,” he said. “It is simply a fact that insufficient funding for Amtrak has delayed the installation of PTC, and to deny a connection between the accident and underfunding Amtrak is to deny reality.”
Speaking at a press conference at Camp David Thursday afternoon, President Barack Obama made his first public comments since the crash, expressing condolences to the victims’ families while pushing for greater spending on infrastructure.
“We are a growing country, with a growing economy,” he said. “We need to invest in the infrastructure that keeps up that way, and not just when something bad happens like a bridge collapse or a train derailment, but all the time. That’s what great nations do.”
One day after the House Appropriations Committee’s vote, Democrats continued to criticize Republicans for not funding Amtrak adequately.
“Republicans have been very much against Amtrak for a very long time,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Delaware, who rides Amtrak between his Delaware home and Washington, called Wednesday’s vote “striking,” and admonished Republicans for cutting Amtrak’s budget at a time when he said the public rail system needs more money to modernize its aging infrastructure.
“If we were investing anything like our competitors, we would have a modern national train system,” Coons said Thursday on CNN’s “New Day.” “We have an aging infrastructure that we have to pay for.”
Coons touted Amtrak’s increased ridership and revenue in recent years as a reason to invest more in the railways, particularly in the Northeast Corridor that connects Washington and Boston.
Democratic Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal also called for increased funding in the wake of the tragedy.
But as Democrats called for $1 billion of additional funding for Amtrak on Wednesday, Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, rebuked them for politicizing the deadly crash.
“Don’t use this tragedy in that way,” he said. “It was beneath you.”
CNN’s Ted Barrett contributed to this report.