WASHINGTON -- Democrats blocked a sweeping energy bill from moving forward Thursday after negotiations stalled over including aid to help with the water contamination crisis in Flint, Michigan.
Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both Democrats of Michigan, started pushing the issue last week as the Senate began debate on the energy bill. Their provision would provide $600 million in emergency funding to Flint to replace and fix the city’s water supply infrastructure and establish a center dedicated to helping people in Flint recover from lead poisoning. Republicans scolded Democrats for using the crisis to play politics, and argued it is a state and local problem.
Ahead of the procedural vote, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) delivered scathing remarks on the floor, accusing Republicans of abandoning the people of Flint.
“One hundred thousand people in Flint, Michigan, have been poisoned, and Republicans do nothing,” Reid said. “Nine thousand little children -- all under the age of 6 -- have been poisoned, their brains attack by the contaminated water. Still, Senate Republicans refuse to help.”
That was met with a fiery response from Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) after the Democrats filibustered the underlying bill in a 43-54 vote.
“The Democratic caucus has come together and brought down this bipartisan bill ... at least for the time being,” Cornyn said. “We know the vote that just went down wasn’t about the energy bill; this is about trying to embarrass Republicans, and to try to make us look bad and portray us as having no compassion for the poor people in Flint.”
The bulk of the money provided by the Stabenow measure would go toward removing Flint's lead pipes, something Democrats haven't proposed doing anywhere other than Flint. Roughly 10 million homes and buildings across America are served by lead pipes.
Cornyn added that the money Democrats are trying to send to Flint wouldn’t help because the state of Michigan and the city of Flint don’t know what to do to fix the problem yet, or how much it will cost. A main hold-up for Republicans is finding an offset that will pay for the money directed to Flint.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said talks will continue over the weekend between the bill’s manager, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Democratic counterpart Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.) to find a way forward.
Democrats have united behind the Flint crisis, trying to corner Republicans on the issue in both chambers the entire week. One by one, Senate Democrats filed onto the chamber floor Thursday morning to decry the situation in Flint and attack Republicans. At least six spoke ahead of the vote.
“This is of catastrophic, almost Armageddon proportion, that an American city has been poisoned,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.).
Her voice rising, Mikulski shouted, “Let’s get real.”
“We are now bogged down in Washington wonky budgeteer talk: 'Where is the offsets?' What is this? What is this? Are we human beings?” she said.
Both sides appeared ready to continue negotiations after the failed vote. Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) expressed optimism that a path forward could be found, but only if legislators resolve their differences over how to help Flint.
Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) criticized his colleagues for trying to find an easy solution to move the Flint provision.
“There ain’t going to be an easy solution,” Inhofe said. “We’re talking about too much money, but we still have compassion for the people and we think we have something to offer that would solve the compassion and the offset problem.”
Inhofe’s amendment would offer $200 million to help Flint by taking funds from a vehicle research program under the Energy Department. It hasn’t gained traction with Democrats.
Murkowski, who had shepherded the bill from her committee to the floor, is committed to helping Flint, her spokesman Michael Tadeo said, even if Republicans and Democrats don’t agree on the final details of a provision.
Flint's water spoiled in 2014 because the state and local governments failed to treat it with anti-corrosion chemicals following the city's switch to the Flint River as its water source; the water then leached lead from the city's pipes. Last fall, a local pediatrician showed Flint kids had higher lead levels in their blood after the water switch, prompting officials to switch the source back after they had denied all along that the problem existed. It's still unclear when the water will be safe to drink.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) has pushed for increased federal funding to help with Flint's water woes, seeking a disaster declaration from the Obama administration that would unlock $96 million in direct water assistance. Instead, the administration granted an emergency declaration and provided $80 million, much of which would be devoted to longer-term water infrastructure projects. Separately, Snyder has requested tens of millions in assistance from the Michigan legislature.
On the House side, several Flint residents brought bottles of filthy water to a congressional hearing on the Flint water crisis earlier this week. Republicans had called the hearing to take the Environmental Protection Agency to task for its failure to act swiftly in response to the Flint crisis last year.
Keeping attention on Flint, House Democrats also plan to hold their own hearing on the crisis next week.