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Flint Aid Triggers Partisan Battle Over Senate Energy Bill

A bipartisan energy bill turned into a partisan battleground on Wednesday as party leaders in the Senate accused each other of sabotaging the measure for political purposes.

Democrats demanded consideration of an amendment unrelated to energy policy that would provide federal financial support to help Flint, Mich., fix its lead-tainted water crisis. Republicans, careful to stress that they are eager to help Flint, said the cost was too great and would establish a precedent of federal assumption of state and local responsibilities.

“Let’s see if the Democrats want to block an energy bill that they have supported all along over this issue,” Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said on Wednesday after Democrats threatened to block the bill absent the amendment. “We are willing to work in good faith with them, but if they just want to basically play politics, we can’t stop them.”

“The hard right is blocking it,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., vice chairman of the Senate Democrats’ Conference, said of Republican opposition to the amendment proposed by Michigan Democrats Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters. “Our caucus feels we have to do something about Flint now, and they ought to back off.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., started the process to end debate on the bill Tuesday night by invoking cloture on the broad bill (S 2012). A cloture vote would occur Thursday, at a time yet to be determined.

But after taking to the floor to announce that talks toward an agreement on the amendment had stalled, Stabenow told reporters, “I think it’s a big question whether [Republicans] get cloture.” 

Stabenow said the agreement that fell through provided less than half of the amendment’s original $600 million request.

“I don’t know what is happening at this point,” Stabenow said. “We had, as of yesterday, I thought, a solid agreement.”

Terms of the supposed agreement have not been made official, but individual lawmakers described some details on Tuesday. The funding sent to Flint to improve the water system would come in the form of preferred-rate loan via an already-established EPA program that helps states pay for drinking water infrastructure, such as the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, a federal-state revolving loan fund, according to several senators.

Stabenow said Republicans were using “bogus excuses” based on procedural concerns to stop the amendment from moving forward. The amendment sought to address toxic levels of lead found in Flint residents’ water, stemming from a 2014 city decision to switch this water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, while not requiring chemicals to be added that would prevent pipe corrosion.

‘Political Football’

‘“We don’t want to use [the people of Flint] as a political football,” Stabenow said. “They don’t deserve this after everything that they’ve been through up until this point.”

Stabenow said that she was warned that because spending bills traditionally originate in the House, an effort by the Senate to initiate spending on Flint could lead House leaders to place a “blue slip” on the bill, which would stop it from moving forward. A person familiar with discussions told CQ Roll Call the Republicans believe there is already a blue slip issue, but the Democrats do not. Discussions about the matter are ongoing.

Another issue in the discussions, according to a person familiar with them, is a disagreement about the federal government’s credit risk on $600 million in loan guarantees it made for the state of Michigan.

Democrats had estimated that the total cost of the package would be scored in the neighborhood of $280 million, including $60 million to back the loans. But, the Congressional Budget Office appears to have viewed the matter differently, and Senate Republicans interpret the situation as needing more offsets.

Republicans have so far balked at the price tag associated with the amendment. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, who led the bill through her Energy and Natural Resources Committee, has said multiple times that any amendment to the bill that has a cost would need an offset for it to move forward.

“Where we are in the process is put forward something that can be helpful [for Flint], but recognizing that amendments that have a score are pretty tough to deal with right now,” Murkowski said Tuesday night when the deal appeared imminent. “I have said that from the very outset of this process that if there is a score, there has to be an offset, and if it’s a tax provision, it has a blue slip and we can’t run that risk. We’re still trying to thread that needle.”

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Tuesday that he did not agree with sending an emergency appropriation to Flint. He claimed it should begin with local and state support with federal intervention, if needed, coming through the regular appropriation process, and not an energy policy bill.

The broader energy bill would streamline permitting for liquefied natural gas exports, mandate improvements to the electric grid’s reliability and security, raise energy efficiency standards for commercial and federal buildings and permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Murkowski has tried to spare the bill from being laden with partisan amendments in order to avoid a showdown that could prevent the legislation from passing or being signed by President Barack Obama.

Stabenow also emphasized that proponents of the Flint amendment have worked to achieve a bipartisan consensus.

“We really don’t want this to be a partisan, political issue,” Stabenow said. “We just want to get people in Flint some help.”

Neils Lesniewski contributed to this report.

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