GOP Scrutiny of Flint Aid Deal Slows Energy Bill's Advance

A handful of Republican senators, including the majority whip, are looking askance at a proposed agreement to provide federal aid for the Flint, Mich., drinking water crisis — a deal demanded by Democrats to allow an unrelated energy bill to advance.

The senators are still combing through the specifics of the agreement as well as the procedural actions needed to advance both the bill that would provide the assistance to Flint and the energy bill (S 2012). Democrats are in agreement with the deal as currently constructed, according to Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.

“There are some outstanding holds, but that does not necessary mean they are related to the [Flint]  water infrastructure bill,” Peters said Thursday. “It could be related to the energy bill as well. They are working through that now, and hopefully we will be in a better position next week.”

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he opposes the deal because he doesn't want the federal government to "pre-emptively pay" for solutions that might best be handled at the state level. "It’s working its way through the EPA and the Clean Water trust funds that could be available, but I’m not in favor of the deal as currently proposed.”

According to a Senate aide, the Republicans are trying to get a few holdouts onboard with the unanimous consent agreement that would “hotline” the consideration of the two bills. 

The hotline agreement, which would eliminate floor debate and allow for a faster consideration of amendments to the energy measure, would set in place 30 voice vote amendments and eight amendments for a roll call vote. There would be no amendments to the Flint provisions.

There had been rumors that Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, would hold up the deal over some of the procedural provisions, Peters said. However, having reviewed the bill, Cruz will not be preventing its advancement, a Cruz Senate aide told CQ Roll Call.

In the latest iteration of the agreement, Flint would receive $100 million from the Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, though the state must first submit a plan that explains how the money will be spent. In addition, $70 million would come from the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act fund, and $50 million would go toward health accounts for national programs, including a health registry and advisory committee and a childhood lead poisoning prevention program. The bill would also establish a process for other lead-stricken communities to receive federal aid.

Proponents of the deal said it cost of the Flint aid would be offset by the rescission of a $250 million advanced vehicle technology loan program for auto companies. But a Senate Budget Committee staff member said ending the loan program could not be counted as an offset because was was approved as an emergency appropriation without offsets of its own. That would put a 10-year, $220 million pricetag on the Flint aid package. 

The Flint aid would move separately from the energy bill. The Flint provision would be considered through an amendment to Rep. Dan Kildee’s bill (HR 4470), which would require the EPA to notify the public when it discovers unsafe lead levels in a community's drinking water.

According to Peters, the House has been receptive to the measure. “We had a bipartisan discussion with the Michigan delegation, and the Michigan delegation wants to be as helpful as they can in a bipartisan way," he said.

The energy bill had bipartisan support up until late January, when Peters and fellow Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow insisted that the bill include their aid proposal for Flint. Republicans initially balked at the proposed $600 million plan, but Democrats would not allow the bill to move forward absent a Flint provision.

The Flint amendment sought to address lead found in residents’ water after a 2014 decision by the economically distressed city's state-appointed financial overseers to switch its water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The change was made without adding chemicals to prevent pipe corrosion, resulting in leaching of lead into the water supply.

The energy bill would streamline permitting for gas exports, raise energy efficiency standards for commercial and federal buildings, permanently reauthorize the Land and Water Conservation Fund and mandate electric grid improvements.

Niels Lesniewski and Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.