Roll Call: White House to withdraw Amtrak nominee to lift Senate blockade

by Valerie Yurk

The White House is withdrawing one of its six nominees to the Amtrak board of directors to be replaced by a yet-to-be-named candidate hailing from the Western U.S., said a congressional aide familiar with the nomination discussions, clearing a path for a full slate after Montana Democratic Sen. Jon Tester demanded the candidates be more “geographically representative.”

According to the aide, Tester will lift his blockade of the board nominees since the move would make the slate compliant with a 2021 infrastructure law mandate that limits the number of board members from the Northeast Corridor.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee announced it will vote on Anthony R. Coscia, Christopher Koos and Joel Matthew Szabat’s nominations to the board Oct. 18.

“When I sat down with my Republican and Democratic colleagues to craft our Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, I fought tooth and nail to ensure that the American West would be fairly represented on the Amtrak Board, and throughout the entire bill,” Tester said in a statement. “I’m pleased to see that the Biden Administration will follow the law and set up an opportunity to do right for rural America by guaranteeing our Amtrak board represents our nation’s diverse geography.”

The infrastructure law limits the number of board members from the Northeast Corridor — which is defined as Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia — to four.

“I believe the board will be well served by adding a qualified candidate who has greater familiarity with the operations and customer base for Amtrak’s long-distance and regional routes,” Tester wrote in a letter to Biden in April, when he first announced he would block the nominees.

Senate Commerce ranking member Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also sent a letter to Biden in April with six other Republican panel members, signaling GOP opposition to the nominees. With Democrats’ slight 14-13 majority on the panel, Tester’s support is key for the nominations to advance.

President Joe Biden in January nominated Coscia, Koos, Szabat, David Michael Capozzi, Samuel E. Lathem and Robin Lee Wiessmann to the board. Koos, who is from Illinois, is the only nominee from outside of the corridor. The rest are from Maryland, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania.

Coscia is currently the board chairman and Biden nominated him for another term, while Capozzi, Koos, Lathem, Szabat and Weissmann were tapped for new terms. The board also includes Amtrak CEO Stephen J. Gardner, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Thomas C. Carper, who was originally nominated by then-President George W. Bush in 2007.

It’s not yet clear which of the Northeast Corridor nominees Biden will choose to withdraw from consideration, although the committee’s markup announcement narrows it down to likely Capozzi, Lathen or Wiessmann.

“I don’t know — who wants to flip a coin?” joked Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., during a June hearing on three nominees, referring to the administration’s potential withdrawal of one of the six nominees. 

Lawmakers hailing from states that aren’t connected to Amtrak’s popular Northeast Corridor routes have been stressing the need for the administration to focus funding and attention on other regional passenger routes. 

The infrastructure law provided a total of $66 billion for rail over five years, $16 billion of which would go toward Amtrak’s National Network and $6 billion to the Northeast Corridor, according to a Rail Passengers Association analysis. The bill also included provisions that are aimed at prohibiting Amtrak from discontinuing routes through rural communities and increasing congressional oversight of Amtrak’s changes to long-distance routes, along with the board of directors language.

“Montanans sent me to Washington to fight for our rural way of life, and I’ll stand up to anyone — including the Biden Administration — who tries to put rural America second,” Tester said in the statement.