House OKs bills funding $170M for Flint, other cities

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — U.S. House lawmakers on Thursday approved two bills that together authorize and fund $170 million for emergency aid to Flint and other communities struggling with contaminated drinking water.

Lawmakers approved a stopgap spending bill to keep the federal government running through April in a bipartisan 326-96 vote and, separately, a water infrastructure bill that directs how the $170 million package should be spent by a 360-61 vote. One member of Michigan’s delegation, Rep. Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township, voted no.

Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, said he hoped such strong House support would encourage Democrats to vote for the water infrastructure bill in the Senate, where some have vowed to stop it.

“Flint had a lot to do with the size of that vote. There are a lot of folks who said, ‘I don’t like what’s in this, there’s a lot of things I can’t tolerate, but Flint has waited too long,’ ” Kildee said after the vote. “That’s a sentiment held by a lot of people who voted for this bill, and hopefully that helps when it goes to the Senate.”

Members on both sides of the aisle spoke Thursday in support of the Flint-related measure, but they split over a controversial drought provision in the water resources bill that would boost water deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.

The White House on Thursday also highlighted the need for Congress to provide emergency aid for Flint.

Press Secretary Josh Earnest recalled Republicans’ promise to take action on Flint before year’s end.

“But what we’re seeing is that Republicans in Congress are actually planning to leave town for the year tomorrow,” Earnest told reporters. “And hopefully they’re not going to do that without fulfilling their promise to the people of Flint that have already endured so much and are just asking the United States Congress to do something other than falsely criticize their political opponents on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Some California Democrats, including Sen. Barbara Boxer, and senators from Washington state and Oregon oppose the drought provision and could hold up action when the legislation reaches that chamber. Boxer has said she would use “every tool at my disposal” to stop it over her concerns for fishery jobs and the easing of environmental restrictions.

But Rep. Jared Huffman, D-California, on Thursday accused Republicans of trying to jam through the “dangerous” drought provisions and skipping over the normal legislative process.

“Let’s not forget that this same last-minute, closed-door maneuver nearly torpedoed last year’s must-pass spending measure,” Huffman said on the floor.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, said supporting Flint is the right thing to do but members shouldn’t have to pay a “ransom” to achieve it, referring to the drought provisions she said would weaken “critical Endangered Species Act protections.”

Supporters of the drought provision said it respects the Endangered Species Act and eliminates “outdated” water policy.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican whose district includes parts of the San Joaquin Valley, announced the drought provisions this week, blaming the government for exacerbating California’s drought with “stubborn regulations and legal restraint.”

“I ask this body, Mr. Speaker, what could be more fundamental to life than water? America’s not some Third World country. We’re a wealthy nation, and we will not let any American go without water,” McCarthy said on the floor. “We cannot treat each community facing water crisis in isolation.”

He described California families who sounded a lot like Flint families — forced to travel to community centers for drinking water or to take showers and brush their teeth.

The bill “will increase pumping. It will increase storage. It will fund more desalinization, efficiency and recycling projects. And it will do all this in accordance with the Endangered Species Act without costing the taxpayer one additional cent,” McCarthy said.

“Once we pass this bill today, I urge the Senate Democrats and Republicans and the president to join with the House and enact this bill and help our communities in California, in Flint and across the country get access to the water we desperately need.”

Kildee said there’s provisions the infrastructure bill he disagrees with, “but I’ve been fighting for my hometown and been told to wait and wait and wait. The people of my community can wait no longer,” Kildee said on the House floor.

“This bill would provide relief to my hometown. It would put it on a path, and it would send a signal that it’s OK to invest in Flint. That it’s OK to stay. That the water will be fine. That it is a responsibility we have. This is a moral obligation that we have.”

Rep. Fred Upton, R-St. Joseph, also urged his colleagues to act. “Folks in Flint are tired of the partisan blame game,” he said.

The infrastructure bill authorizes water projects across the country. The House and Senate passed versions of the bill in September, and are now reconciling the differences before adjourning for the year.

The Water Infrastructure Improvements Act for the Nation authorizes $100 million for subsidized loans for water infrastructure improvements through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for any state that receives a federal emergency declaration due to a public health threat from lead or other contaminants in a public drinking water supply system. Flint would qualify under the law.

The legislation also includes $20 million to cover financing costs for up to $200 million in secured loans for water infrastructure across the country through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act Fund at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Another $50 million would be directed toward national health programs for efforts such as a health registry, and more funding for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Fund.


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