Senate Dems threaten shutdown over Flint aid

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Senate Democrats on Tuesday blocked a vote to advance a short-term government funding bill over its exclusion of $220 million in aid that would in part help Flint with its lead-tainted water.

Republican leaders accused the Democrats of playing election-year politics in blocking the continuing resolution that is required to keep the government running past Friday and fund it for another 10 weeks. The Senate voted 55-45 for the continuing resolution but needed 60 votes to proceed.

Democrats are insisting that Congress not leave Flint out of a resolution that includes other emergency disaster funding – specifically, $500 million for flood victims in Louisiana, West Virginia and Maryland.

“If they’re helping Louisiana, they have to help Flint,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, told reporters at the U.S. Capitol.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has maintained that Flint’s problems should be handled through a water resources funding bill that overwhelmingly passed the Senate on Sept. 15 with about $220 million in Flint-inspired aid. The House is scheduled to vote as early as Wednesday on its version of the water resources legislation, which doesn’t include the Flint aid package.

“We keep hearing their position is ‘No Flint, no floods,’ and that’s certainly an option worth discussing,” McConnell said.

If Congress doesn’t pass the funding measure, the federal government shuts down Saturday. The last shutdown in 2013 lasted 16 days.

The latest stalemate prompted Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to press the Republican-controlled Congress for action, as well.

“Gov. Snyder has reached out to leadership in both chambers to convey to them the importance of this federal funding for Flint's full recovery,” spokeswoman Anna Heaton said in a Tuesday email.

Democrats stressed before Tuesday’s vote that the stopgap funding resolution is the only “must-pass” legislation remaining on the congressional calendar and urged Republican leaders to include help for both Flint and flood victims.

“Let’s not pick and choose who we take action for,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township.

McConnell emphasized Tuesday that Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, promised to address the Flint aid package when the Senate and House meet to reconcile differences in the water resources legislation.

“The senator has committed to fighting for it in conference,” McConnell told reporters.

When the Senate approved the $9.4 billion water resources bill in a 95-3 vote about two weeks ago, Michigan Democrats said they hoped the $220 million in Flint-inspired aid would be included in any legislative vehicle including a continuing resolution.

“We want to get this done before Congress breaks before the election,” U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, told reporters.

Before the House began debating the Water Resources Development Act this week, Republicans in a key House committee blocked an amendment proposed by Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, to include the Senate’s $220 million Flint package in the House’s version of the legislation.

The package includes $100 million for subsidized loans for water infrastructure improvements for states such as Michigan with a federal emergency declaration due to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in the public drinking water supply.

Republicans said the amendment wasn’t germane to the bill and violated several budget spending rules.

“Republican leadership (previously) says this really belongs in another bill — talk about it in the continuing resolution. When we are debating the continuing resolution, they say, you know, this is really a water resources issue, it should be in WRDA,” Kildee told reporters. “They can’t have it both ways.”

He and other Michigan Democrats said they have no assurances from House Republican leaders and were dubious of promises to address Flint when negotiators meet to reconcile the bill.

“If the rationale is that a water issue in Flint should be in WRDA, then a water issue in Louisiana should be in WRDA, as well,” Stabenow told reporters.

Stabenow acknowledged there are other potential solutions other than including the Flint package in the funding resolution but declined to elaborate.

As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, is expected to be on the conference committee for the WRDA bill. That group would meet some time after the Nov. 8 election. Upton recently visited Flint with Kildee.

“Fred remains committed to working with his colleagues here in the House and over in the Senate to try and find a path forward for Flint funding – no matter the vehicle it rides in,” spokesman Tom Wilbur said.

Rep. Candice Miller, R-Harrison Township, said she knows Upton would fight for inclusion of the Flint aid in conference.

“They are playing politics with this,” Miller said of the Democrats. “If you can get assurances this will be taken care of in conference – to put it on WRDA – several days ago that was good. Now, it’s not. If you change the goal posts all of the time, that’s not really helpful.

“It’s unfortunate, again, for the people of Flint that all of this is happening,” she added. “I feel very strongly that this is a terrible thing that has happened to the city of Flint, and I think the federal government needs to step up.”

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