Flint fight threatens energy bill

Flint fight threatens energy bill
© Lauren Schneiderman

The fight over the water crisis in Flint, Mich., is threatening to tank the Senate’s broad energy reform bill.

Negotiations to attach an aid package were increasingly breaking down on Wednesday, with one key Democrat warning her caucus could block the underlying legislation if it isn’t satisfied.

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“I still don’t know where we are,” said Sen. Debbie StabenowDebbie StabenowThe Hill’s Whip List: Where Dems stand on Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Perdue says he will advocate for agriculture spending RNC drops six-figure ad buy for Supreme Court, healthcare fight MORE (D-Mich.), who has taken the lead in negotiating for Flint aid with Republicans.

“We want to do something that will help people that need help,” she said, warning Democrats are “not going to support moving forward” without something that helps the people of Flint.

Democrats want a $600 million aid package, with $400 million to match state funds to repair and replace old pipes in the city and the balance going to a research and education center on lead poisoning.

Republicans are balking at the cost of the package and are irked at the threats to delay the underlying bill, which has had bipartisan support. The bill includes a number of measures aimed at modernizing the country’s energy systems and policy.

“We don’t really know yet what the Democrats want other than a blank check,” Senate Majority Whip John CornynJohn CornynThis week: GOP picks up the pieces after healthcare defeat GOP senators pitch alternatives after House pulls ObamaCare repeal bill Rand Paul takes victory lap on GOP health bill MORE (R-Texas) said Wednesday.

He called Stabenow’s threat to block the bill “cynical” and said it tells him the Democrats are “really not interested in passing an energy bill, they just want to try to embarrass their political opponents, which is too bad.”

Stabenow signaled she was willing to accept an offer that was less than half the original $600 million proposal but accused Republicans of bringing up procedural issues.

“Now we can’t even get agreement on that because we’re hearing procedural excuses, procedural excuses that are overcome every single day on this Senate floor when we want to,” she said. “Well, if they don’t work with us, I think it’s a big question of whether they get cloture.”

The water supply for Flint, a city of 100,000 people, was switched by an emergency manager appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2014 from Detroit’s municipal supply to the Flint River for budgetary reasons.

Water from the Flint River is more corrosive; without the proper corrosion controls, it caused lead from old pipes in the city to leach into the drinking water, making it far too dangerous to drink.

The crisis has become a major political problem for Snyder, and Democrats have sought to tie him to Republicans in D.C.

The GOP, including House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzSecret Service agents set for discipline after fence-jumping incident: report Overnight Cybersecurity: House Intel chair says surveillance collected on Trump transition team House Oversight grills law enforcement on facial recognition tech MORE (R-Utah), in turn has blamed the Environmental Protection Agency for realizing there was a problem with Flint’s water supply but doing little about it.

The Senate is scheduled to hold a cloture vote on the energy bill Thursday, meaning 60 votes are necessary to end debate.

Senate Minority Leader Harry ReidHarry ReidAfter healthcare fail, 4 ways to revise conservative playbook Dem senator 'not inclined to filibuster' Gorsuch This obscure Senate rule could let VP Mike Pence fully repeal ObamaCare once and for all MORE (D-Nev.) said the caucus is behind Stabenow in her push.

“Before we rush off into the congratulatory phase of this legislation, there has to be an opportunity to work something out on Flint, Mich., and the tremendous problems they have,” he said.

Sen. James InhofeJames InhofeRepeal of Obama drilling rule stalls in the Senate GOP senator: EPA 'brainwashing our kids' A guide to the committees: Senate MORE (R-Okla.) on Wednesday introduced a compromise package worth $200 million that would expand loan programs to help out Flint and other cities with lead problems. But it would use money taken from the Energy Department’s advanced vehicle manufacturing loan program, a high priority for Michigan.

Michigan’s delegation took that as an insult.

“That’s not something we’re interested in,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said.

Stabenow called it “a complete insult” and a “slap in the face,” and accused the GOP of using Flint to cut a program that they’ve targeted for years and that is a huge boon to the auto industry, including Flint’s General Motors plant.

“So they’re saying they can drink the water, but lose their jobs.”

Separately on Wednesday, Republicans and Democrats alike were furious with officials who skipped a House Oversight hearing on the issue.

Two officials involved in the water crisis — the former emergency manager for Flint, Darnell Earley, and Susan Hedman, the EPA regional director who resigned in January — declined invitations to testify.

Chaffetz subpoenaed the two to appear before members. He said of Earley, “We are calling on the U.S. marshals to hunt him down and give him that subpoena.”

Earley’s attorney, Scott Bolden, relented after the hearing and said he would cooperate with the panel.

Among those who showed up, the EPA’s Joel Beauvais repeated the agency’s contention that officials did what was required of them: Once finding out about lead concentrations in Flint’s water, they informed state regulators charged with executing clean drinking water laws there. 

But Chaffetz questioned why there was a lag between the EPA’s water report and its notification to state officials, and he pressed an agency administrator on why the department didn’t make public its findings. 

“The crying shame here is, when they knew there was problem, they should have told the public, they should have told [state regulators],” he said. 

Keith Creagh, the director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said Flint itself should have played a bigger role in the crisis. 

But Michiganders on the panel, especially Democratic Rep. Brenda Lawrence, rejected that argument. An emergency manager for the city, appointed by Snyder, was behind the decision to switch Flint’s water supply, she said, supplanting local authority under a state law.

Democrats had hoped Republicans would have called Snyder to testify. They said Wednesday that they would look to use procedural rules to compel his testimony.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking member of the committee, said the goal should be to find the responsible parties no matter which branch of government they’re from.

“I don’t care whether it’s EPA, whether it’s local, whether it’s state. I want everybody who is responsible for this fiasco to be held accountable,” he said. 

“I’m not protecting anybody, because that’s not our job. We are the last line of defense.”

Jordain Carney contributed.