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Senate Votes to Curb Debate on Conrail Bill : Action Seen as Victory for Administration Plan

January 31, 1986|PENNY PAGANO | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a victory for supporters of the Reagan Administration's plan to sell Conrail to Norfolk Southern for $1.2 billion, the Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to curb debate on the controversial measure.

The vote of 70 to 27, limiting debate on the bill to 100 hours, was another key indication that the Administration has enough support for the plan to pass the Senate. A final Senate vote is expected Tuesday; the House will begin work on the measure later.

"It is clear that the majority has spoken on the matter," Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) said after the vote. "We ought to go ahead and complete action on this bill."

The sale of Conrail, the government-owned freight railroad, to Norfolk Southern would create the nation's largest railroad system.

Senate debate Thursday grew heated at several points as opponents argued that the issue of the sale was being given short shrift. "We are moving too fast," Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.) declared.

But supporters of the measure accused critics of attempting to stall a final vote and argued that it was time for the Senate to move on to other pressing issues.

'Fish or Cut Bait'

"Enough is enough," Sen. John H. Chafee (R-R.I.) said. "We've got to fish or cut bait."

The Senate's decision to cut off debate followed a number of votes earlier this week in favor of the Administration's plan, including a crucial one Wednesday that rejected a $1.6-billion bid by a group of investors organized by the New York investment firm of Morgan Stanley.

Opponents of the Administration's proposal made no further headway Thursday as the Senate voted repeatedly to table a number of amendments, including one by Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) that would have directed the secretary of transportation to solicit new bids for the sale.

Also tabled was an amendment by Sen. Alan J. Dixon (D-Ill.) that would have made the sale to Norfolk Southern subject to antitrust laws, allowing shippers, railroads and others to file lawsuits to block the transaction. A proposal by Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.) to remove tax benefits that Norfolk Southern would receive from the sale also was set aside.

The Senate did adopt an amendment by Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) that would protect several smaller Midwestern railroads from damage that they might suffer from business diverted to Norfolk Southern.

Conrail was formed in 1976 in the wake of the financial failure of the Penn Central and several other railroads in the Northeast. The government has an 85% interest in the company, with Conrail's employees holding the remaining 15%.

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