Leading House Democrats visited Flint, Mich., on Monday to examine the city's water crisis and lob warnings that cuts in infrastructure would promote similar emergencies nationwide.
The Democratic alarms, coming amid the congressional fight over the 2017 budget, are an effort to counter the GOP’s push to cut federal spending.
"This is a national story because it is of national interest and it requires a national response."
The Democrats are pushing Congress to approve emergency funds to address the water crisis in the near term. But the debate over Flint is also emblematic of a broader budget battle that is bound to be fierce in a presidential election year.
The Democrats, who have long pushed for increased domestic spending in their annual budgets, are framing the Flint crisis as the inevitable consequence of cutting government spending on infrastructure and other public works programs.
"The message needs to be: We need to invest and not be penny-wise and pound foolish. … And the cost cannot be determined just in dollars and cents," Rep. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the Democratic whip, said Monday in Flint, referring to the health problems facing the victims of the water crisis.
"We need to invest in our infrastructure, in our peoples health and in our children."
Republicans, by contrast, have offered budget bills that would cut hundreds of billions of dollars from domestic programs to reduce deficit spending and shrink federal influence over state and local governments.
The Flint crisis began in 2014, when emergency managers appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) switched the city's drinking water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The corrosive river water caused lead from the city's pipes to leach into the water, which can cause brain damage and other severe health problems. Officials fear that thousands of residents were exposed.
Snyder is expected to testify before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee next month.
"We on the federal level have a role to play," Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), ranking member of the Oversight panel, said Monday from Flint.
The budget debate has proven an early headache for Speaker Paul RyanPaul RyanOvernight Healthcare: Burwell huddles with Dems on fighting ObamaCare repeal Reid: Bring back the earmarks Ryan: GOP won’t ‘pull the rug out’ from 'Dreamers' MORE (R-Wis.), the former Budget Committee chairman, who's scrambling to unite his fractured conference behind a new resolution.
A 2015 agreement between President Obama and former Speaker John BoehnerJohn BoehnerBoehner compares Trump to Teddy Roosevelt Boehner: 'Thank God' I wasn't in the middle of election Ryan delays committee assignments until 2017 MORE (R-Ohio) already set spending caps through fiscal year 2017. But conservatives have threatened to oppose any budget that doesn't contain steeper cuts.
On Monday, GOP Budget Committee leaders floated a proposal they hope will break the impasse. The measure would keep 2017 spending at the Obama-BoehnerJohn BoehnerBoehner compares Trump to Teddy Roosevelt Boehner: 'Thank God' I wasn't in the middle of election Ryan delays committee assignments until 2017 MORE levels but guarantee separate votes on deficit reduction bills to satisfy conservative deficit hawks.
Republican leaders intend to bounce the strategy off of the full GOP conference this week. The consultation will push the markup of the budget bill to March, one week after it was initially expected.
“This proposal enjoys the overwhelming support of the committee members, and the chairman looks forward to sharing it with the broader Conference as we continue moving this process forward,” Ryan Murphy, spokesman for Budget Chairman Tom Price (R-Ga.), said Monday.
Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), senior Democrat on the Budget panel, wasted no time hammering the delay with accusations that GOP leaders are beholden to the far right.
"This delay is yet another indication that the extreme Tea Party is in control of the Republican majority," Van Hollen said in a statement. "As Republicans argue among themselves about just how much they'd like to cut Social Security, Medicare, and other vital safety net programs, Democrats stand ready to actually get things done for working families."
Van Hollen is expected to unveil the Democrats' 2017 budget next month.
Sarah Ferris contributed.