WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted last week to require Amtrak to allow passengers to transport guns in their checked baggage.
Senators voted 68-30 for an amendment that would take away $1.5 billion in funding for the government-subsidized passenger railroad if it doesn't begin checking in firearms by March.
Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., argued that sportsmen who want to take the train to hunting trips cannot do so. On the other hand, airlines do accept firearms in checked luggage, he said.
"Only the federally subsidized Amtrak prohibits law-abiding American citizens from exercising their Second Amendment right in checked baggage," Wicker said.
The amendment would require passengers to declare the firearm before boarding, and the gun must be unloaded and locked in a hard container.
Opponents argued that the rail system does not have the same rigorous baggage screening system as airlines, and that it would be a costly and lengthy process to put one in place.
"So this amendment is going to put a severe burden on them, and if they do not comply, Amtrak will shut down," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash.
"Passenger trains do not have nearly the baggage handling safeguards that airplanes do," said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "I know the political force behind gun amendments, but this goes too far."
Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and John Ensign, R-Nev., voted for the amendment.
The Senate debated amendments before passing a $122 billion spending bill for the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Senators defeated an amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., that would stop requiring states to spend 10 percent of their federal road money on "transportation enhancements" such as picking up roadkill or erecting historic markers.
"Let's not force state transportation departments that need critical dollars for bridge repair and road repair to spend it on a bicycle path nobody is going to ride or a sound barrier that truly doesn't cut the sound," Coburn said.
"At another time, another place, maybe we would want to do that," Coburn said. "But with our infrastructure crumbling ... to continue to mandate that every transportation department in the country has to spend a full 10 percent of their money, not on something that is about safety, but on what somebody may like and what may look good, to me does not connect with common sense."
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the programs funded by the 10 percent set-aside have created 399,000 jobs since 1992, including for environmental cleanup.
"There are many millions of jobs related to tourism, landscaping and other scenic beautification," she said. "We all know and take pride in our communities. Highway beautification, to me, is a key part of our quality of life."
The Coburn amendment was killed, 39-59. Ensign voted for it. Reid voted against it.
STIMULUS SIGNS DEFENDED
Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., proposed an amendment to forbid the use of federal money to put up road signs alongside projects being funded by the $787 billion economic stimulus bill passed early this year.
Gregg said such signs are self-congratulatory "political signs. They are there so lawmakers can pat themselves on the back." He said the estimated savings of between $6 million and $15 million could be spent "for something valuable rather than a sign."
"There shouldn't be any signs," he said.
Boxer said such signs describe the projects and let people know how long they will be under way, and are "no big deal." She speculated Gregg and other Republicans are frustrated because the stimulus bill most of them voted against appears to be working to create jobs.
"If it passes, no harm," Boxer said of the amendment. "But I have to say, why on Earth would you want to hide from the American people the fact that the recovery package we passed is putting people to work?"
The Gregg amendment was killed 45-52. Ensign voted for it, while Reid voted against it.
STUDENT LOAN SYSTEM REVAMPED
The House voted to overhaul federal student loans, a centerpiece of President Barack Obama's education agenda.
The bill that passed 253-171 largely along party lines would convert all student college loans to direct lending by the federal government, ending a program in which the government subsidized private lenders who offered loans.
Supporters, mostly Democrats, said the change would save about $87 billion over 10 years by cutting out the middleman. About half the savings would be redirected to scholarships for low- and middle-income students.
The measure also would authorize $22 billion in grants for states to improve early childhood education, renovate community colleges and modernize other public schools.
Republicans said the bill will kill up to 50,000 lending industry jobs. They decried it as another "government takeover" by the Obama administration. They predicted costs will skyrocket beyond the administration's projections, leaving taxpayers to foot the bill.
Reps. Shelley Berkley and Dina Titus, both D-Nev., voted for the bill. Rep. Dean Heller, R-Nev., voted against it.
The House voted to reprimand Rep. Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican who shouted, "You lie," at Obama during his address to Congress this month.
Democrats who pressed for a formal action against Wilson said he was clearly in violation of House rules of decorum. In particular, several members of the Congressional Black Caucus said Wilson's remarks could stoke racial hatred.
Republicans accused House leaders of "piling on" as Wilson already apologized to Obama through Obama's chief of staff.
The resolution of disapproval was passed 240-179.
Seven Republicans and 233 Democrats voted for it. Twelve Democrats and 167 Republicans voted against it. Berkley and Titus voted to reprimand Wilson. Heller voted against the reprimand.
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at stetreault @stephensmedia.com or 202-783-1760.