U.S. Senate talks on Flint aid bill remain deadlocked

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Senate Democrats remain deadlocked with Republicans Thursday on reaching an assistance package for Flint a week after blocking a vote to advance the bipartisan energy bill over the issue.

Both sides say talks on the Flint amendment are continuing. But the chamber has moved on to debating legislation on customs enforcement and North Korean sanctions, as lawmakers prepare to break for a week.

U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, are seeking a Flint funding package of up to $600 million, largely to help with replacing and rebuilding water infrastructure that has been corroded and is leaching lead into the drinking water supply.

The senators say each time they have reached a potential agreement with Republican senators in negotiations on how to pay for, or offset, the package’s cost, it’s rejected by the larger GOP caucus. The senators pledged to continue to negotiate in good faith until they secure an aid package.

“Every time we think we have something, the rug has been pulled out from under us after hours and hours and hours of work,” Stabenow said Thursday on the Senate floor. “Frankly, I feel like Charlie Brown when Lucy is pulling the football away, time after time, after time.”

Peters said he shares Stabenow’s frustration.

“We’ve had some very positive conversations, but as we have those positive conversations, it seems it unravels right when we are very close to making it a reality,” he said Thursday on the floor. “Why is it that members of the United States Senate can’t step up for all Americans who are suffering?”

Stabenow said one exception was last weekend’s work with Sen. Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who chairs the Committee on Environment and Public Works, on a “fully paid-for proposal” to help Flint families as well as the opportunity for communities across the country needing aid for water infrastructure projects. They haven’t been able to get a vote on the proposal, she added.

Peters explained that one suggestion to pay for the package would have eliminated a tax incentive permitting deductions for donations of property intended for easements for golf courses. The Joint Committee on Taxation has estimated that eliminating the deduction would generate $272 million over 10 years.

“Some Republicans have argued for this very elimination of this very tax deduction, and that would pay for infrastructure. It would pay to help the children of Flint,” Peters said. “I know some of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle want to protect the wealthy donors to golf courses, but I believe the children of Flint are more important.”

A spokesman for Senate Energy Committee Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, noted that last week Murkowski offered an amendment to the energy bill to provide up to $550 million to Flint, including $50 million that would be made available immediately and the rest of which would have to be paid back.

Stabenow objected to the amendment, saying it would not provide enough aid up front to Flint. It would rely largely on loans through the nascent Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act Fund, which is months away from being set up.

“It is unclear to us why it is not seen as an acceptable response,” Murkowski spokesman Mike Tadeo said.

“The Energy Committee has been and remains unable to agree to add anything to our broad, bipartisan energy bill that directly and deliberately violates the rules of the Senate, the Constitution or increases deficit spending. Doing so would prevent the bill from ever reaching conference — and, among other consequences, prevent aid from reaching the people of Flint, Michigan.”

Stabenow is concerned that there’s not the “resolve” among senators to help the families of Flint, noting that some Republicans are making floor remarks to “attack the people you’re supposed to be negotiating with” and insisting that Flint’s water crisis is a local issue.

The federal Disaster Relief Fund contains $6 billion to $7 billion, and Michigan is asking for a “small withdrawal from that account” for the families and children of Flint, Stabenow said.

She noted that, over the years, the fund has paid for assistance following a water main break in Boston, a chemical spill in West Virginia and the explosion of a fertilizer plant in Texas. The latter was a dig at Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, who has argued the Flint matter is a state and local responsibility.

“I am not sure why that was a federal issue? A fertilizer plant?” Stabenow said.

“Yesterday, our colleague from Texas said that we’re optimistic trying to get help, while at the same time the president was signing a federal disaster declaration allowing additional federal aid for 25 counties in Texas.”

She noted that, since 2005, the federal government has sent $9.7 billion to Texas, including $1 billion worth of livestock disaster aid that she secured in the Farm Bill through her leadership on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

A Cornyn aide said a congressional funding package for the Flint water crisis differs from the situation in West, Texas, where a fertilizer refinery exploded in 2013.

That year, Cornyn asked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reconsider its denial of a federal disaster declaration stemming from the fertilizer refinery explosion, and FEMA granted the appeal. FEMA has declined to issue a federal disaster declaration for Flint, saying it doesn’t fit the statutory definition of a natural disaster.

Peters suggested the Senate is playing favorites on who receives federal disaster aid.

“The fact that we are not coming together to do this is why people have such disdain for this body — have such disdain for the Senate and the House because they think that in times of crisis we pick and choose who we help,” Peters said.

Cornyn has said it’s premature to consider a package for Flint before Michigan has crafted a plan for how it will repair water infrastructure in the city. On Thursday, he asked whether the Michigan senators were aware of Gov. Rick Snyder’s request to the Legislature this week for a $195 million package for Flint aid.

Stabenow replied that Snyder also sent a letter to President Barack Obama requesting nearly $800 million in emergency disaster assistance for Flint.

“What we have been working to do is ask for federal help for about 25 percent of that, with the balance of it being paid for by the state of Michigan,” she said.

“Certainly, the state of Michigan has incredible culpability related to this, and we understand what they’re doing finally. ... That does not take the place of (our) helping the people of Flint and helping to solve this issue.”


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