Told that President Carter would veto legislation to freeze rail passenger service at existing levels, the House last night turned down such a proposal, even though its backers said there was "no way" the president could get away with reducing train service during an energy shortage.
The action paved the way for a veto today on an Amtrak reorganization plan that eliminates some trains, but concentrates service on heavily used lines at the expense of little-ridden "political trains."
The vote against a one-year freeze on service cuts was 214 to 197.
Rep. Albert A. Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), who sponsored the amendment with Rep. Wyche Ffowler (D-Ga.), argued that the nation's "gas problems are not temporary . . .We are going to need these trains."
But Rep. James J. Florio (D-N.J.), chairman of the Commerce Subcommittee on transportation, said he had been told that the threat of a veto, first raised by former transportation secretary Brock Adams and repeated this week by acting DOT Secretary W. Graham Claytor, had been "cleared at the highest level" at the Office of Management and Budget.
The compromise legislation, to be voted on today, is the work of Florio's committee and would eliminate many of the cuts originally proposed by DOT.
Last year, Congress ordered DOT to study rail passenger service with an eye toward reducing the $1.4 billion federal subsidy to Amtrak. When the report came in earlier this year, it recommended eliminating service on 43 percent of Amtrak's 27,000-mile system as of Oct. 1.
But as the energy shortage worsened, Congress moved to retain many of the threatened runs, including commuter service operated by Amtrak. Among these runs were several trains to Washington from Baltimore and Martinsburg, W. Va.
Florio argued yesterday tht there wasn't enough money available to operate all of the trains, as Gore and Fowler sought, and that the nation would be better off putting its money into trains that were potential money-makers.
After the subcommittee agreed to cut the number of Amtrak passenger miles from 27,000 to about 22,000 the Carter administration said it would support the compromise.
After rejecting the freeze last night, the House agreed by voice vote to an amendment offered by Rep. Robert Duncan (D-Ore.) that would assure each quadrant of the country at least one long-distance train.
The Senate has a similar bill awaiting floor action, and the fight to freeze service at existing levels is likely to be renewed there, where Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) has prepared an amendment similar to that by Gore and Fowler.