California lawmaker's pet inspires rare bipartisan compromise

Bipartisan rail agreement reached, thanks to a dog

From the rubble of hurt feelings and partisan gridlock that Congress has become, Lily the French bulldog has emerged as a peacemaker.  

The 15-pound dog, with the jowls of a young Winston Churchill and the pluck of a latter-day Snoopy, is the inspiration for of Rep. Jeff Denham's (R-Turlock) measure approved Wednesday to allow dogs and cats to ride on Amtrak trains.

“Lily’s got a lot of friends here on Capitol Hill,” Denham said in an interview.

Denham said he has used the measure -– and Lily’s charm -- to help build support for a larger passenger rail bill that sailed through the House on Wednesday on a bipartisan 316-101 vote. President Obama, who has threatened to use his veto pen with abandon this year, has said he supports the bill.

The Senate has yet to take up the passenger rail bill, which also has language intended to make it easier to obtain loans to expand passenger rail service in California and other parts of the country.

The bill also includes an amendment, added Wednesday afternoon, that would require states to draft new safety plans for rail crossings. Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Westlake Village), who introduced the amendment, represents a district that includes Oxnard, the site of last week's Metrolink crash that left 28 people hospitalized. The engineer, Glenn Steele, died Tuesday from injuries sustained in the crash.

Denham said he introduced his more lighthearted dogs and cats travel measure in 2013 out of frustration. He and his wife could take Lily back and forth to California on United Airlines without any problems. But when they tried to take her on Amtrak, they heard a familiar refrain: No dogs allowed.

A year ago, he persuaded the government-supported Amtrak to run a pilot program in Illinois that allowed pets on trains -- as long as they stayed in a kennel in a special “dogs and cats” car.

Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said the pilot has gone well so far, with 145 pets transported last year without incident.

Denham’s bill would expand the program to routes around the country. Amtrak has yet to define which routes will qualify, but the bill requires they be less than 750 miles, given dogs' need for outdoor relief. Pet owners would have to pay a $25 fee for the privilege. Sorry, no ferrets or Komodo dragons.

Denham said he plans to take a family train trip with Lily to celebrate, but has not yet bought his tickets.

“This is a common sense solution,” Denham said, lapsing back into political speak. It “will not only allow pet owners to be able to travel with their loved ones, but also take in much needed revenue and allow people to be able to travel on Amtrak.”

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