Democrats believe they have finally found the leverage they need to force Republicans to approve funding to address the water crisis in Flint, Mich.: historic flooding in Louisiana.
Democrats are pushing for a Senate-passed aid package for Flint to be linked to flood relief funds in a stop-gap spending bill that would prevent a government shutdown at the end of the month. Republicans say they want to give the House more time to consider passing funding for Flint, but Democrats have refused to sign off on the spending bill until the issue is resolved.
“We have been trying to fund Flint for I think it’s eight months now,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Tuesday. “People in Flint are still drinking water out of bottles. They still have children who are sick with lead poisoning. And the Republicans have refused to do anything.”
Flint aid has emerged as one of the final sticking points as negotiators continue to bicker over the remaining details of the stop-gap spending bill, which would keep the government funded through Dec. 9 and also provide more $1 billion to combat the Zika virus. Party leaders also continue to clash over whether the United States should give up control of a non-profit that governs the internet domain system and make it easier for the Export-Import Bank to approve more deals. But the stand-off over aid for Flint is proving to be among the hardest issues to resolve.
There is broad bipartisan agreement that Congress needs to act quickly to approve federal disaster relief for the wide swath of Louisiana impacted by historic rainfall and flooding that killed 13 people in August. Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) has requested $2.8 billion to help rebuild the area where flooding hast typically been rare and few residents were protected by flood insurance.
But Democrats are insisting Republicans also agree to include money to help Flint deal with a water supply that has been poisoned by lead contamination.
“You can’t put Louisiana in unless you put Flint in, they both should be together,” Senate Democratic Policy Committee Chairman Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters Thursday.
Democrats, led in the Senate Michigan Sens. Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow, both Democrats, have been working for months to pass funding for Flint to repair damage to the city’s water pipes that caused lead to leech into the drinking water. The crisis began in 2014 when a state-appointed emergency manager switched the source of the city’s drinking water to the nearby Flint River in an effort to save money. The corrosive river water caused damaged pipes and rendered the water undrinkable and in some cases unsuitable for bathing.
“Louisiana needs the money now, Flint needed the money last January and before,” Peters said. “It is a living nightmare for the people of the city of Flint and they can’t wait any longer.”
Last week the Senate voted 95 to 3 to approve $100 million in federal money for Flint as part of a broader water resources bill, pending the drafting of a comprehensive plan for how the money would be spent. It also authorized at least $700 million in loans from the Environmental Protection agency for communities looking to upgrade their existing water system and $50 million for programs to address the health impacts of lead exposure.
The bipartisan Senate package falls short of Democrats’ original request for $600 million in relief for Flint.
Senate Republicans say they have already approved the money once and Democrats just need to wait for the water bill to be approved in the House.
“I don’t understand their thinking, obviously [the water bill] has Flint in it,” Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) told reporters on Wednesday. “Its just a question of does it come 10 weeks from now.”
House leaders have said they plan to take up the water bill sometime after the election in November but their legislation does not include any aid for Flint. Peters said House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) has vowed to push for Flint to be addressed once the House and Senate meet to resolve differences in their two versions of the water bill. But Democrats don’t want to wait to see if the funding survives those negotiations.
“Their bill may not have money for Flint in it,” Schumer said.