Senate passes bills containing aid for Flint

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A group of Democratic senators late Friday relented in their campaign to hold up the final bills of the session, allowing the Senate to approve emergency aid for Flint and to prevent a government shutdown. Both pieces of legislation now go to the president’s desk for signature.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, called it a “very long, hard-fought victory.”

On Friday, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sherrod Brown of Ohio had demanded that Republicans negotiate a better deal in the must-pass budget resolution to extend health care benefits for coal miners that are set to expire Dec. 31.

The resolution extends the miners’ benefits for another four months, but Democrats were pushing for a full year of coverage. On the Senate floor, Democrats said they wanted to highlight the seriousness of the issue.

“We believe deeply in preserving these benefits, and we also believe in not hurting other people to preserve these benefits, so we’re not going to shut down the government. We’re going to keep it open,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, the incoming minority leader. “I think we have made our point.”

Senators voted 63-36 shortly after 11 p.m. Friday to approve the stopgap spending bill, averting the midnight deadline when current law expired. The House had passed the measure Thursday with a majority of both parties voting yes.

Shortly after 1 a.m. Saturday, the Senate voted 78-21 to approve the House-passed the water infrastructure bill that directs how the $170 million Flint-related package should be spent.

“We have people that are in a crisis situation,” Stabenow said shortly before the Saturday vote. “They have waited and waited while other things have been done the entire year. It’s time for them to stop having to wait. ... No place else in the country is there an entire city that has not been able to use their water system because of fear of lead poisoning.”

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, said that, while the state of Michigan has primary responsibility to support long-term recovery efforts in Flint, the federal government should have stepped in earlier with emergency assistance.

“For nearly a year, Senator Stabenow, Congressman Kildee and I have fought to secure emergency assistance while many families in Flint are still living on bottled water and dealing with the negative health effects of this tragedy,” Peters said in a statement.

“I am pleased that Congress has finally followed through on the promise made to Flint residents and approved funding to help the City of Flint replace its lead-tainted pipes.”

Peters and Stabenow voted for both bills. Together, they authorize and fund $100 million in grants for water infrastructure improvements through the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund for states with a federal emergency declaration due to a public health threat from lead or other drinking water contaminants. Flint would qualify under the law.

The package also includes $20 million to cover financing costs for up to $200 million in secured loans for water infrastructure across the nation through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act Fund at the 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.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, delivered a floor speech Friday condemning the California drought amendment by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-California, to the infrastructure bill. She said it put her in the “ridiculous” position of filibustering the water bill she helped to write, referred to as the Water Resources Development Act.

“You take a beautiful bill like WRDA ... and then you put a pile of dirt on top of it, which I call the McCarthy rider, and then you stick a little Maraschino cherry on top, which is Flint and a couple of other good things,” Boxer said on the floor. “And then you say, OK, eat the dirt.”

Senators from Washington state and Oregon also opposed the amendment, which in part would boost water deliveries to the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California. They said it would cost fishery jobs and ease environmental restrictions.

“Our colleagues over here were frustrated that the other side would never live up to a Flint agreement,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington.

“And the consequence is they’re cynical enough to put Flint in this bill as a way to get votes for something they know they should not be bringing to the floor of the United States Senate.”

Friday morning, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, urged Senate Democrats to follow the example of their House colleagues and pass both bills.

He noted that Manchin and Brown would be unlikely to get an extension of miners’ benefits at this point because the House has gone home for the year.

“We should pass the (continuing resolution) without delay because if we don’t pass the CR, the health benefits will go away at the end of this month. The House is gone. They are through for this session,” McConnell said Friday on the Senate floor.

“Failure to pass this legislation means delaying funding for our troops overseas. Failure to pass this legislation means delaying funding for Flint, Michigan. I promised Senator Stabenow that we would deal with that issue.”

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