WASHINGTON -- Michigan's two Democratic senators took to the chamber floor Thursday to plead for a vote on legislation that would help cities like Flint that are suffering from a poisoned water supply.
As the Senate packed up for a two-week recess, Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters asked their colleague Republican Sen. Mike Lee (Utah) to withdraw his hold on the bill, which he has blocked for weeks.
Tired of the stalemate, Stabenow and Peters decided to air their grievances in consecutive emotional speeches on the Senate floor.
“Here we are today about ready to break for two weeks, and we are going to break without addressing this issue,” Peters. “I wish that one senator who has a hold would have met with the people I met with this morning. To hear their stories, to hear their anguish, to see their tears in their eyes as they talked about what they are dealing with.”
“What’s happening? The children of Flint are waiting,” said Stabenow. “This has got to stop. We need a vote, we need a vote."
The water supply in Flint, Michigan, became contaminated with lead in 2014 after the city switched its water supply source. For over two months, Stabenow and Peters have worked to move some kind of aid legislation for the city alongside a sweeping energy bill. A funding measure, secured late last month and authored by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), would make money available via an Energy Department Advanced Vehicle Technology fund to Flint and other cities that need to rebuild their water infrastructure.
After fast-tracking the bill using a procedural tool that allows it to reach the floor faster, the troubles began. A handful of senators placed holds on either the Flint bill or the energy one. Now, only Lee’s hold on the Flint bill remains. (Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) has a hold on the energy bill.)
With no apparent way forward, Stabenow and Peters are hoping Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) files cloture on the Flint bill, which would bypass Lee’s hold. But there is no indication he will.
Speaking with reporters after their speeches, the two senators admitted they are starting to look at other options to move the money for Flint.
“We’re still talking, but it just seems to go round and round and round and round and round,” Stabenow said of negotiations with Lee.
Pressed on how long they are willing to wait for McConnell to file cloture, or for talks with Lee to come to a close, the pair wouldn’t offer a timeline.
"We don’t control the process," Stabenow said. "We have moved as fast as possible."
Peters gave a more aggravated response.
“This is to get past one person,” he said. “This is just one person who appears to think having poisoned children is a bargaining chip for him, which I think is absolutely outrageous.”
Lee objects to the payment mechanism in the bill, and has called it “political grandstanding.”
“Sens. Lee and Stabenow continue to work on finding a way to both pay for Flint and grandfather in as many [Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing] loans as Stabenow wants,” said Lee spokesman Conn Carroll.
Lee also maintains that Michigan has the resources it needs, and Congress shouldn’t get involved in a local water crisis.
Across the Capitol, however, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) said Congress should pass the Flint bill as he rattled off his ongoing efforts to respond to the Flint lead poisoning in testimony on Thursday.
"I urge Congress to pass the bipartisan bill for aiding Flint immediately so we can further protect the health and safety of Flint families. From identifying every pipe that must be replaced to long-term medical support, we are working with local leaders like Mayor Karen Weaver and our representatives here in Washington to deliver the assistance our citizens deserve," Snyder said.
Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.