Eleventh-hour government funding deals are usually negotiated between the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate and the White House. This year, there were some extra players at the table.
Members of the Michigan delegation were heavily involved in securing aid for the city of Flint, which has been stricken by a water contamination crisis for more than a year.
Resolving the Flint aid issue was instrumental to breaking the stalemate over the continuing resolution to keep the government funded through Dec. 9, since Democrats had refused to let the CR advance without a commitment on Flint.
Two-term Michigan Democrat Dan Kildee, who represents Flint, was directly involved in negotiating an amendment to the Water Resources Development Act to authorize $170 million for infrastructure improvements for communities like Flint that was to reflect that commitment.
“We were obviously pushing hard to get Flint in from the beginning,” Kildee said Wednesday. “We sort of forced the issue obviously. So our leadership — and I also met with the speaker — we worked out language that moves the ball forward, gives us a chance to get something in the final WRDA that gets relief for Flint.”
Kildee said there were quiet conversations throughout the beginning of the week, but that negotiations “really broke through” midday Tuesday. Leadership had agreed that the House would vote on an amendment to the WRDA but that it must be germane, meaning it could authorize funds for Flint, not appropriate them.
Kidlee sat down with Speaker Paul D. Ryan in his office Tuesday evening to negotiate the final details of the amendment. Although there was some concern a few hours after that meeting that the deal would blow up, Kildee said, matters ultimately came together.
While Democrats had wanted to see actual money for Flint move on the CR, since it was a must-pass bill, Republicans had the power in the majority to prevent that. Many, including Ryan, believed Flint was a local government issue that didn't merit federal emergency aid.
“It became increasingly clear that this was going to be a path where there otherwise would not be one at all,” Kildee said of the WRDA bill. He noted that WRDA was actually where he had originally been pushing for Flint funding, but that once that path appeared blocked in the House, Democrats looked to the CR.
“That turned out to be a good strategy, because it had the effect of opening the door again for WRDA,” Kildee said.
“It was a combination of an aggressive approach on the CR and a chance to educate on this issue that caused a change of heart,” he added.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi touted Kildee’s role to reporters on Thursday.
“This is a lion; this is a champion; this is a person who every single day in his service in Congress, his leadership in our caucus, came forward and reminded us of what was happening on a daily basis, getting worse in Flint,” the California Democrat said. “Nobody who knew more, cared more, or had more at stake for the children [of Flint] than Dan Kildee.”
Kildee, whose uncle Dale E. Kildee represented the district from 1977 to 2013, was quick to point out that other members also helped. The Democratic caucus and leadership were fully on board, he said.
“Some of my Republican allies, particularly from Michigan, had been working on the Republican side of this,” Kildee added, citing Reps. Candice S. Miller, Fred Upton and John Moolenaar as GOP lawmakers who “made a huge difference.”
Upton told reporters before the deal came together on the amendment that he was “confident” Flint would get addressed before the end of the year. He tried to assuage Democrats’ concerns that if the Flint language didn’t make it in the House WRDA bill, it wouldn’t be addressed in a House-Senate conference, noting that he would be a conferee and would fight for a commitment.
Michigan's Democratic senators, Democrats Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, were also involved in the talks about Flint, and were vital to the Senate Democrats’ efforts to block the CR until they secured aid for the beleaguered city.
“We were on the phone with Sen. Stabenow on a regular basis and I communicated with Sen. Peters as well,” Kildee said. “This is a strategy that was not a unilateral strategy by any means.”
Peters, too, said the strategy was one united across chambers.
“We’ve been working with our House colleagues all along,” he said. “That’s been an ongoing thing. The problem was House Republican leadership didn’t seem to be willing to budge. To me the turning point was yesterday, when my Senate colleagues, we voted to hold up the CR, not vote for cloture, and everybody stood very firm. "
The negotiations did pick up around the time of the failed Senate cloture vote. But it was the speed, Kildee said, that was part of why they had to settle for authorizing language on the House WRDA bill instead of an appropriation.
“I was a little disappointed to see that the Senate seemed to move pretty quickly from holding the line on their cloture vote to signaling that they were ready to go,” he said. “That made it more difficult for us.”
Peters and Stabenow also expressed disappointment that their efforts fell short of Flint funding passing this month; they and Kildee both voted against the CR for that reason. But the Michigan delegation and the leadership all say they believe Flint aid will reach the finish line in the lame-duck session after the November elections.
And if there’s any trouble, Kildee said Democrats will be prepared to fight, noting, “There are other areas, other points of leverage that we could use to make sure we get this done.”
Bridget Bowman contributed to this report.