Senate Democrats block energy bill over Flint aid

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Michigan’s two senators asked Thursday for more time to negotiate with Republicans on proposed federal aid for Flint as Senate Democrats helped block a vote on a bipartisan energy bill.

The vote to end debate failed 46-50, falling short of the 60 votes needed to advance the legislation.

“The cloture vote today is to shut off amendments. Give us some time,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, said on the Senate floor. “We’re asking colleagues to see (these children in Flint) — to hold them with as much value as children in your own family.”

After the motion failed, Republican Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas took to the floor to accuse the Democrats of “showboating” and not making a good-faith effort to compromise.

“This was about trying to embarrass Republicans and try to make us look bad and portray us as having no compassion for the poor people of Flint, which is exactly the opposite of true,” Cornyn said.

As revised, the proposal would, in part, provide $200 million to the EPA for direct grants through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund to any state that has received a federal emergency declaration due to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in a public drinking water supply.

In floor remarks, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, stressed that the measure would provide funding for any state with contamination of drinking water — not just Flint.

“While I sincerely hope we are able to advance this bill out of the Senate, it is simply too soon to cut off debate and invoke cloture,” Peters said. “I hope we can reach agreement with our Republican colleagues, but we’re not there yet.”

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, chairwoman of the Energy Committee, said voting to advance debate on the energy bill would still mean another 30 hours of legislative activity on the measure.

On the floor, Murkowski said she shares the “heartbreak” over Flint’s contaminated water and the lead poisoning of some of its 9,000 children. She agreed that “if we don't address the situation, it’s not going to go away. We’ve got a role here. Let’s figure it out and engage.”

On Thursday, Murkowski filed an alternative amendment that would provide up to $550 million in aid to Flint, including $50 million that would be available immediately and the rest of which would have to be paid back.

“What we’re seeking to do is bridge the gap between what has been proposed, and what I believe the Senate can agree to,” she said.

Murkowski said negotiations on the Flint package have made headway, but Republicans’ problem is how to offset its cost “in a manner that does not destroy the underlying energy bill, does not violate the Constitution or the rules we have here in the Senate.”

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow objected to Murkowski’s amendment. The Lansing Democrat later explained it would not provide enough aid up front to Flint, relying on loans through the nascent Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act Fund, which is months away from being set up.

“That doesn’t solve the problem,” Stabenow said in an interview.

Peters agreed it’s important to secure grants up front so the state and city can begin replacing and fixing lead fixtures in Flint.

“Similar as we do with any emergency funding, it is provided directly and immediately as cash to the impacted area,” Peters said in an interview.

Cornyn said it was putting the “cart before the horse” to vote on a package for Flint before Michigan has crafted a plan for how it will repair water infrastructure in Flint. He also noted the millions of dollars in state funding already appropriated to aid Flint.

“The fact of the matter is the state of Michigan and the city of Flint don’t yet know what it will take to fix the problem, or how much it will cost,” Cornyn said.

Stabenow noted that a requirement of the proposal is that Michigan or any state first would have to submit to EPA a detailed report on how funding would be used for the public health emergency before any funds could be drawn down.

“Senator Cornyn is completely out of the loop with what we’re doing,” she said. “Whatever he’s saying honestly is not relevant. He’s not in these discussions. He’s just throwing attacks.”

Stabenow said negotiations had resumed Thursday afternoon and would continue through the weekend if necessary.

“We hope as part of our agreement, we get commitment from the Republican leadership, so they will whip the votes necessary to pass the amendment,” Peters said. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

One funding offset that had been under discussion would have transferred $260 million from the Leaking Underground Storage Tank Trust Fund to cover the cost of direct loans from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund and any financing through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act Fund, according to Stabenow’s office.

Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, had proposed an offset using money from the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Program authored by Stabenow in 2007 to help auto and parts manufacturers retool plants to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Stabenow rejected the proposal, calling it a “poke in the eye” because, for an auto town like Flint, it would mean choosing between resources for clean water or protecting jobs.

Murkowski spokesman Mike Tadeo said she remains committed to helping the people of Flint and other affected communities “even if her amendment to provide up to $550 million in aid proves unacceptable to Senate Democrats.”

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