By Mike Lillis - 02/04/16 04:22 PM EST
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is rejecting a broader role for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in response to the water crisis in Flint, Mich.
Some Republicans — most notably Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) — have pushed President Obama to declare a major disaster in Flint, thereby freeing tens of millions of FEMA dollars to address the emergency.
“They're saying that because they want to take all the responsibility away from them[selves],” Pelosi told reporters in the Capitol. “That money is money for natural disasters; that money is not there for political disasters.
“And what the governor did was a policy disaster of the highest magnitude.”
Pelosi is calling for more federal money to address what she called “the outrageous situation” in Flint. But rather than tap FEMA funds, she's advocating new legislation, sponsored by Michigan Democrats, providing hundreds of millions of dollars for the city, including funds to replace water pipes, expand education programs and provide healthcare services to those affected by the lead-tainted water.
“We're taking our lead from our Michigan members who see firsthand the consequences of this really unconscionable decision on the part of the governor of Michigan to have these kids at the mercy of this poisonous water,” Pelosi said.
The Democrats' first stab at legislation failed on Thursday, when Senate Republicans declined to accept a Flint funding bill as part of a bipartisan energy bill. In response, Democrats blocked the energy bill from getting a final vote, while the sides continue to seek a deal on the Flint piece.
The vote was the latest development as policymakers in Washington and Michigan scramble for a response to the Flint water crisis.
For years, the city had drawn its water from Lake Huron, via treatment plants in Detroit. That changed in 2014, when state-appointed emergency managers, in an effort to save government funds, switched the source to the Flint River amid construction of a new pipeline. The move was not accompanied by efforts to treat the water with chemicals to prevent leaching from lead pipes, and it's feared that tens of thousands of Flint residents have been exposed.
Obama last month declared a state of emergency in Flint, allowing some FEMA dollars to be used in response. But he stopped short of characterizing it as a disaster, as Snyder had requested, because the crisis is rooted in human error.
Pelosi said Snyder's FEMA request was designed to downplay the state's responsibility.
“That's one way of them absolving the whole issue and saying, ‘It just happened,’” she said. “But it didn't just happen. It was a decision.”
The debate surrounding Flint's water has mushroomed into a broader discussion — largely partisan — about the role and scope of government in the lives of Americans. With Snyder on the defensive, Democrats are highlighting the crisis as a tragic example of what can happen when policymakers try “to do government on the cheap,” in the words of Rep. Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraDemocrats end sit-in on gun control Dems sustain protest as GOP angles to start recess early Clinton vows to work closely with Democrats MORE (D-Calif.).
“This is more than a canary in the mine,” Pelosi said. “This is ... a very big, loud noise about why we need to address our infrastructure challenges. What we find is that no maintenance is the most expensive.”
On Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing to examine the Flint crisis. Snyder did not appear before the panel, though top Democrats are urging him to do so in the future.
Lawmakers from both parties had requested testimony from Darnell Earley, Flint's former emergency manager, who refused to comply. In response, Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) issued a subpoena and threatened to have U.S. marshals “hunt [him] down” in order to deliver it.
Separately, House Democrats have scheduled a hearing on Flint next Wednesday in their partisan Steering and Policy Committee. Snyder has been invited to testify.
“As the Governor of the state of Michigan, the families of Flint and all Americans deserve to hear testimony directly from you on how this man-made crisis happened, and what is being done at the state level to make it right,” Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) wrote to Snyder Thursday.