Democrats Hold Energy Bill Hostage to Demand Money for Flint Water Crisis

Political realities bog down debate over Flint aid.

Flint, Michigan resident Glaydes Williamson holds up water from the city and hair pulled from her drain, during a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Wednesday to examine the ongoing situation in Flint.
AP Photo/Molly Riley
Feb. 3, 2016, 8 p.m.

A week ago, Michigan Democrats thought they had the perfect vehicle to help the thousands of residents of Flint dealing with high levels of lead in their water.

On Wednesday, the political realities started to crash in. Negotiations with Republicans on how to make the amendment cost-effective haven’t produced a result—and Democrats have said that a modest energy bill will be the casualty.

Democrats are threatening to withhold their cloture votes for the bipartisan energy package in a vote expected on Thursday if they can’t get an agreement on Flint. “I simply cannot agree to move forward on action on this bill until we … help Flint rebuild,” said Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan on the floor Wednesday.

Earlier in the week, Democrats had been huddling with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the lead Republican on the energy bill, to hash out a deal. Democrats had been looking for $400 million to match state funds to repair lead-tainted pipes, plus other policy measures that would extend aid to Flint and force the federal government to act in future incidents where lead is found in water.

But the initial request wasn’t embraced by the Right, especially since it wouldn’t have offset the spending. Sen. John Cornyn, the Republican whip, summed up the concerns Tuesday, saying he didn’t want to add “additional debt to our tab, especially for something that’s a local and state responsibility.”

Further negotiations had not resolved tax questions and a supposed compromise offered up by Sen. James Inhofe Wednesday only made things worse. Inhofe proposed offsetting the money with cuts to the Energy Department’s Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing loan program, which helps automakers. That, said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, amounted to a “complete insult.”

“Flint is the birthplace of the American automobile industry. General Motors is there today,” Stabenow said, walking onto the Senate floor after meeting with Flint residents. “So they’re saying they can drink the water, but lose their jobs.”

The Flint crisis—which has left thousands in the city dealing with elevated lead levels and raised health concerns for residents—has threatened the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder and emerged as a talking point on both sides of the aisle. Democrats, eager to capitalize on the uproar, have scheduled a Democratic debate in the city next month. The Environmental Protection Agency and the FBI are both on the ground in Flint to respond and investigate what led up to the crisis.

Meanwhile, across the Capitol, a House Oversight Committee hearing on the Flint crisis ended up with more politicking than fact-finding, as Democrats hammered Chairman Jason Chaffetz for not calling Snyder to testify.

Chaffetz, in his own right, opened the hearing by lambasting several other officials—notably former city emergency manager Darnell Earley—for not being there. Chaffetz said he’d send the U.S. marshals to deliver a subpoena to Earley, who had originally been scheduled to testify.

Witnesses and members were quick to lay blame for the crisis at all levels of the government. The EPA was excoriated for not responding quickly enough to the crisis, while the state government was blamed for making the change in water supply that led to the crisis in the first place.

But members also used the opportunity for some good old-fashioned messaging. Chaffetz said it was a “crying shame” that the EPA had not notified the public when it became aware of the problem. Republican Rep. Paul Gosar went after EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, saying it was “despicable” that she had only shown up to Flint this week despite being aware of the problem earlier.

Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly, meanwhile, said the crisis was ultimately the “consequence of putting ideology ahead of human beings.”

House members have promised more action on the crisis, and Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan said he’d introduce a companion bill to the Senate proposal this week.

The future of the Senate amendment remains to be seen—Peters said that “good faith” negotiations were continuing late Wednesday—but a cloture vote on the energy bill looms Thursday morning.

In a press conference after the Oversight hearing, ranking member Elijah Cummings said he was desperate to avoid the Hill’s typical response to a crisis—bickering followed by inaction.

“I hate to have motion, commotion, emotion, and no result,” Cummings said. “I do not want this to be another Katrina-type situation where people say, ‘I’m so sorry this happened’ and then move on.

“I do not see the end of this at all,” he added.

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