Senators have reached an agreement on delivering aid to address the water crisis in Flint, Mich., but work continues on finding a way to get the bill across the floor.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., filed a bill Wednesday that would provide additional funds and loans to enhance safe drinking water and to improve water infrastructure, according to bill text obtained by Roll Call. The agreement comes after weeks of negotiations on how to provide aid to the city, where corroded pipes have poisoned the water supply. Stabenow and Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., originally attempted to attach an amendment aiding Flint to an energy bill, but an impasse over offsets stalled that effort.
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., was optimistic that the legislation would gain bipartisan support. “I believe leadership is going to be very supportive,” Inhofe said. As far as prospects in the House, he said, “I think the House is just as anxious to get rid of this issue as the Senate is.”
Inhofe was was one of a handful of Republican co-sponsors who signed onto the Stabenow bill, including Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Mark Kirk of Illinois, and Richard Burr of North Carolina. Democratic co-sponsors included Peters, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Barbara Boxer of California.
Lawmakers are considering attaching the Flint aid measure to a bill the House has already passed that would require the Environmental Protection Agency to notify residents when their water is contaminated.
According to the Senate bill, the aid would include $100 million for the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, though the state must submit a plan that explains how the money will be spent before they receive any funding. After 18 months, if the funds are not used, the money would be turned over to a program with the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or WIFIA.
The aid also includes $70 million in a WIFIA credit subsidy that would leverage up to $4.2 billion in loans for water infrastructure. The agreement includes $50 million to health accounts for national programs, including a health registry and advisory committee, and a childhood lead poisoning prevention program. The aid would be paid for by the rescission of a $250 million advanced vehicle technology loans for auto companies.
“What we are talking about is something that would continue it for five years, Stabenow said earlier. “We don’t have everything set yet. There are all the process things that have to go on. We are still working it out, but we are optimistic.”
Peters described the result as a bipartisan measure, which would provide support to other communities dealing with lead and other toxic contaminants.
The Michigan Democratic senators initially sought $600 million in federal money in an amendment to a bipartisan energy bill moving through the Senate. Stalled negotiations on that package — that would have helped Flint replace corroded pipes and support children and families exposed to lead — led the Senate to shelve the energy bill. Under the agreement, the energy bill would move forward.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, indicated that the energy bill could get started as soon as possible following consent on a Flint deal. “If we can get consent, we’re cooking,” she said. “I’d like to do it today, but I don’t know if that’s possible. Hope springs eternal.”
Because the energy bill and the Flint aid package had been tied together, it was unclear Wednesday night if one could move without the other.
Flint has become a symbol of failing urban infrastructure and mismanagement after it was revealed that as many as 9,000 children had been exposed to lead in the drinking water while government officials argued about what to do.
President Obama declared a national state of emergency there in January, allowing $5 million in federal aid to flow there. Much of the money has been devoted to dispensing water filters and bottled water to residents who must still use it to bathe, cook and do their dishes.
Congress, meanwhile, remains split over who should bear the brunt of the responsibility and what role the federal government should play in the recovery. Republicans have focused on the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which is responsible for enforcing federal safe drinking water standards.
Democrats have pointed to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who ignored reports that the water was contaminated; he has apologized to Flint residents and promised to fix the problem. Snyder is scheduled to testify before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform’s second hearing on the crisis some time in March.
Snyder will be joined by EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, former Regional Administrator Susan Hedman and former Flint Emergency Manager Darnell Early. Hedman and Earley declined invitations to testify at the first hearing and were later issued subpoenas by the committee to provide private depositions. Those depositions are scheduled for Thursday and Feb. 29, a committee spokesman said.
A delegation of House Democrats visited Flint on Monday, and another group is scheduled to visit the city March 4, this time with a group of 15 to 20 members including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and members of the house Black and Progressive Caucuses. A Democratic presidential debate is scheduled there between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders on March 6, two days before the Michigan and Mississippi primaries. Clinton interrupted campaigning in New Hampshire to visit the city earlier this month.
Flint was under the control of a state-appointed emergency manager when it switched its drinking water supply in 2014. The EPA identified problems with lead contamination nearly a year ago, but spent months arguing with state officials before informing the public.
The city, meanwhile, is still struggling to address basic needs, including testing children for lead poisoning and ensuring that drinking water is safe. At the same time, it must also make a plan for the long-term repercussions of the water contamination, including providing health care for the children exposed to the contaminated water and helping local businesses survive the crisis and eventually rebuilding a city that has been in turmoil for decades.
The House earlier this month approved a bipartisan bill, sponsored by Kildee and Michigan Republican Fred Upton, that would require the EPA to inform residents within 24 hours when tests show that drinking water is contaminated with lead.
The federal government is also expected to approve an expansion of Medicaid coverage to pregnant women and children in Flint. The Medicaid expansion would provide coverage for lead-blood level monitoring, behavioral health services and nutritional support, among other services.
Niels Lesniewski and Jeremy Dillon contributed to this report.
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