Michigan's Democratic senators, who are seeking $600 million in federal dollars to replace Flint's toxic water pipes and support families affected by lead exposure, are hoping the state's GOP governor will lobby his Republican colleagues on Capitol Hill to help foot the bill.
With Republican support uncertain for a measure assisting Flint, Sen. Debbie Stabenow on Thursday urged Gov. Rick Snyder to use his political connections.
"I hope he will call the Senate Republican leader and the speaker of the House and indicate this needs to get done," said Stabenow, appearing with a cadre of Senate Democrats led by Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York to unveil an amendment to energy legislation on the Senate floor.
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As drafted, the amendment would put up to $400 million toward replacing the pipes that are leaching lead into Flint's water supply and require the state of Michigan to match the federal contribution, dollar for dollar. It would also call for spending $200 million in federal money for a center that would support the children and adults suffering health problems because of the tainted water.
There was no immediate sign of a lobbying push by Snyder with Senate Republicans, though Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas said he assumed there were contacts at the leadership level. The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment about any lobbying efforts. His name was conspicuously missing from the witness list for an oversight hearing in the House scheduled for Feb. 3, a leading Democrat said.
Even if he ultimately agreed with the Democratic senators, Snyder might have a tough sell.
"I think we need to be careful here because while we all have sympathy for what's happened in Flint," Cornyn said, "this is primarily a local and state responsibility, and given the fact that we have about $19 trillion in debt, I think it's fair to ask is this — do we want to have the federal government replacing all the infrastructure put in place by cities and states all across the country? This is not primarily a federal responsibility, but I suspect we'll have a discussion about it."
GOP senators raised the Flint issue during a weekly conference lunch on Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the conversation. Sources said the takeaway was a concern about providing federal dollars to Flint that might not be available to other jurisdictions facing trouble with infrastructure like water supplies and sewage systems. That lunch came a day before the Senate Democratic Policy and Communications Center circulated details of the amendment.
Stabenow said the federal government clearly has a role. "This is as much a national crisis as a hurricane, or a tornado or a flood," she said. "We believe it's appropriate for the federal government to match the state's action, but not to replace the state action."
The Michigan legislature on Thursday approved $28 million in emergency funds for Flint, but U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., told reporters that would be far from enough money. Replacing the corroded pipes that are leaching lead into the city's water supply could cost as much as $767 million, and Democrats are proposing that the federal government pay $400 million of that.
That state has enough money in its rainy day fund to match the federal contribution, Stabenow said. "They have the resources if they have the will and the caring to do it," she said.
Peters pointed out that Snyder already asked the federal government for help when he called for a federal state of emergency on Jan. 5. "So, we're meeting them there, saying here are resources from the federal government," Peters said. "The state of Michigan has primary responsibility. It's clear to everybody, the governor has said that. That's why we will need his help as a Republican governor though, to help us with our Republican colleagues here in the Senate to get this money."
The Democratic senator said he hoped the issue would not become a partisan issue. "This is about children," Peters said, "and this is about a public emergency and a core, fundamental issue for everybody, which is in this great country of ours we should be able to have clean drinking water.That's a fundamental right."
Cornyn predicted the issue will be politicized, for better or worse.
"I have no doubt that there will be some people that will try to exploit this for political purposes, but I think the concerns that I raised about the proper role of the federal government and whether the taxpayers across the country feel it's the federal responsibility to bail out cities and states when it's really their primary responsibility," said Cornyn. "I'm sure we'll be there in some form or fashion to help, but whether we just ought to have a blank check, I think that's something we need to discuss."
On the House side, the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Interior announced that it would hold a hearing on the ongoing crisis in Flint. Gov. Snyder is not on the list of witnesses, said Ranking Member Brenda Lawrence, a Michigan Democrat.
“Governor Rick Snyder was at the top of my list of witnesses due to the central role that he has played in this man-made crisis, from the decision to shift from Flint’s original water source for cost-savings to the appalling delay in response to months of complaints by lead-poisoned residents and their children,” Lawrence said in a statement. “I am deeply disappointed at the majority’s lack of commitment to a thorough and meaningful hearing." Rep. Dan Kildee, a Democrat who represents Flint, said he hoped the committee would look at how Snyder and his administration's policies contributed to the crisis.
“Flint deserves answers from the state on how this terrible water crisis happened and what is being done to make it right," Kildee said in a statement. "I strongly support congressional hearings in order to find the facts, hold people accountable, and ensure that Flint families and children get the resources they need to deal with this crisis."
The city of Flint switched its water supply in 2014, drawing water from the Flint River instead of Lake Huron in an effort to save money. But the state did not require anti-corrosion chemicals to be added to the new water supply, and the Flint River contains significantly higher levels of chloride, a chemical that is corrosive to metal, than the Lake Huron water the city had been using for decades.
The result: Iron, rust and toxic levels of lead leached into residents’ water from the aging supply pipes connected to people’s homes. Residents reportedly complained of rashes and strange odors, but officials said the water was safe to drink until elevated levels of lead were found in city children’s blood last year.
Stephanie Akin contributed to this report.
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