High Speed Rail Takes a Hit in Budget Deal

(Washington, DC -- Todd Zwillich, Transportation Nation) Congress managed to avoid a government shutdown over the weekend. But guess who paid for it? Supporters of the Obama Administration's high-speed rail program.

Meanwhile, transportation projects are set to take another hit in the spending agreement that funds the government until September 30.

Lawmakers managed to avoid a shutdown by announcing a spending deal at about 10:30 pm on Friday. But it was too late to draft the deal into legislative text by the midnight deadline, so the House and Senate also quickly approved a one-week spending measure to bridge the gap. But with many lawmakers committed to vote only for budget bills that reduce spending, even the short-term "bridge" carried $2 billion in cuts. That's where rail comes in. The agreement took $1.5 billion from high-speed rail projects immediately, forming the lion's share of the total cuts.  However, that cut will not affect existing grants.

President Obama signed the measure on Saturday, making the cuts a done done deal. But for transportation watchers on Capitol Hill the fun isn't over yet.

"Now up on the Hill, the fine print is being worked out," White House press secretary Jay Carney said Monday.

Details of the five-and-a-half month spending bill that avoided the shutdown are expected by tomorrow. But tucked inside is likely to be another big hit on transportation projects. In the high-stakes money hunt, Republican and Democratic negotiators sniffed out $2 billion to $2.5 billion in spending authority lurking on the books in the transportation committee.

That means that up to $2.5 billion in possible future spending for transportation projects got raided by leaders to help them reach their $38 billion spending cut deal.

"We basically took it," a Democratic negotiator said. "We're taking House transportation money away from them."

More details should emerge after Hill staff finish drafting the spending deal. But that won't be the last word in the budget frenzy going on on in the Capitol. President Obama will lay out his vision for deficit and debt reduction in a speech in Washington on Wednesday.

And debate has already begun on a budget plan for Fiscal 2012, where Republicans are demanding steep reductions in domestic spending. Before that, get ready for a fight on the federal debt limit. Republicans have said they won't vote to raise the limit without as-yet unspecified spending limits that could easily reach transportation programs.

Carney said Monday that the White House wants a "clean" vote on the debt limit without spending cuts attached. On that score, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), has said, "Not a chance."