White House Walks Tightrope on Flint Aid

Obama is not using signature as leverage to get more help for Michigan city

Flint residents have used bottled water amidst a lead poisoning crisis. Lawmakers have yet to reach agreement on how to provide more federal assistance dollars. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Flint residents have used bottled water amidst a lead poisoning crisis. Lawmakers have yet to reach agreement on how to provide more federal assistance dollars. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Posted September 28, 2016 at 7:31am

The White House is being circumspect on how Congress should help Flint, Michigan, and its beleaguered water system even as Democrats call the aid their top priority.


Congressional Democrats are trying to ensure that funding — or a commitment to provide dollars — is secured before both chambers adjourn until after Election Day. But as they and Republican leaders debate whether to roll the money into a 10-week stopgap spending measure or a water resources bill, White House officials have remained mostly on the sidelines, choosing their words carefully.


Late Tuesday night, the House Rules Committee voted to allow an amendment to a water resources measure that would authorize $170 million in assistance for communities like Flint.


As they have for several days, Obama administration officials were reluctant to comment on any potential funding avenue, stressing only that Congress should reach an agreement. The subtle message: How the aid comes is less important than the city getting more federal assistance.


As talks continued Tuesday on the 10-week funding measure, the Senate’s likely next Democratic leader, Charles E. Schumer of New York, called it the party’s “No. 1 concern” as negotiations drag on.


President Barack Obama’s aides, meanwhile, declined to issue a veto threat on any stopgap funding measure that excluded Flint aid.


The White House appears satisfied with winning an authorization for additional assistance through the water resources bill. And the administration’s rhetoric over the last few days shows that the White House is taking care not to do anything that would prompt Republicans to back off addressing Flint before the October break.



“Congress has a responsibility to look out for the needs of those kids in Flint just as much as they have a responsibility to look out for the needs of kids in [flood-ravaged] Louisiana, too,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said last Friday. “So we need to see some congressional attention to this issue.”


White House: Ryan’s Flint Funding Stance ‘Ironic’


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Aides call Obama “disappointed” and “concerned” that Flint funding was excluded from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s initial continuing resolution. But they didn’t list it as a condition for securing Obama’s signature on a stopgap.


Earnest told reporters that Obama wants to make “a significant investment in infrastructure in Flint that’s required to address this problem,” and that he believes “Congress has a responsibility to step forward and provide those resources.”


Just hours later, after Senate Democrats blocked McConnell’s opening offer, he raised the possibility of offering another stopgap without Flint aid and without the dollars for Louisiana flood assistance that his first continuing resolution contained.


Earnest lashed out at House Speaker Paul D. Ryan for taking an initially fuzzy stance on whether the Flint aid is better situated in a water resources bill now on the House floor. The Senate-passed version of the water resources measure includes money for the Michigan city, and Republicans for weeks — before Tuesday night’s Rules Committee shift — were vowing to handle the matter in a conference committee with senators.


“He has the nerve to suggest Democrats are the ones causing problems,” Earnest said, urging Ryan to provide “a little clarity about Republicans’ commitment to addressing this issue.”



Ryan provided some with the Rules amendment. But Earnest himself offered no clarity on what the White House actually would prefer.

“I know the president feels very strongly about supporting the people of Flint, and they very strongly support putting Flint into this package,” Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow told Roll Call. “However we can get it done, [administration officials] support, but I know they have no objection to getting it in the CR.”

Asked if the White House’s murky stance is undercutting Democrats’ ability to negotiate the stopgap measure, she responded: “It doesn’t matter. … Every time we think we have a door, [Republicans] shut it.”


Asked if the White House’s stance is complicating matters, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California said: “President Obama has been fighting to get money for Flint for about a year now. So it’s not his fault that Republicans are not giving us the dollars that we need, that they need.”

Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents Flint, described the White House has having “essentially the same position that I have taken all along: whatever vehicle is moving.”


Kildee emphasized that he won’t accept just a promise from GOP leaders that they will address Flint funding later during the water bill conference. “The promise in writing that I’d trust is president Obama’s signature on a piece of legislation,” he told Roll Call.

Becerra said it is “tough” for Democrats to “have any confidence that Republicans would follow through with those statements of putting the Flint monies in a [water resources] bill.” 

Deputy House GOP Whip Tom Cole of Oklahoma scoffed at Democrats’ skepticism. “If your position is, ‘I don’t trust Paul Ryan,’ that’s like [saying], ‘I don’t trust the Boy Scouts,'” he said.

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com. Follow him on Twitter @BennettJohnT.