After weeks of partisan bickering and snail-paced negotiations on a spending package to keep the government funded, it took a failed Senate procedural vote on Tuesday and the prospect of yet more gridlock for the winds to abruptly shift.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s unsuccessful bid to advance a Republican continuing resolution helped winnow down a list of unresolved issues to Democrats’ insistence that Congress direct aid to Flint, Michigan, which is still grappling with the aftereffects of a water-contamination crisis.
After the final battle line was drawn, a deal came together quickly and by Wednesday afternoon the Senate had passed a continuing resolution to maintain funding for federal agencies and programs through Dec. 9, and the House did the same later in the day.
Brinksmanship like Tuesday’s vote, which came with just three days left to avert a government shutdown, might have stirred a bit of public panic.
But for Washington insiders, it signaled that it was time for congressional leaders to get together and figure out how they could all claim a bit of a win in a less-than-ideal situation.
McConnell, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi jumped on the phone multiple times Tuesday afternoon, aides confirmed, with a renewed energy to find a compromise on Flint.
Although Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid was reportedly not on some of the calls, he was involved as negotiations moved forward, talking with McConnell and Pelosi multiple times, as well as the White House, a senior Democratic aide said.
Senate Democrats contend that it was their firm stance against moving the continuing resolution Tuesday that got GOP leaders back to the bargaining table. A senior GOP aide said a key turning point was when McConnell floated a CR without Flint aid or flood relief for Louisiana as an option, which brought Democrats to the table.
Michigan Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents Flint and spoke with both Pelosi and Ryan as a deal came together, said Democrats were determined not to leave town before the November election without addressing aid for the stricken city.
The Senate had approved a Flint aid package as part of the Water Resources Development Act it passed earlier this month. But with signals that the House version of WRDA would not include Flint, Kildee said Democrats looked to use the fate of the CR as leverage.
“It gave us the time and attention to make Flint’s case,” he said.
Pelosi had been pushing for the Senate’s $220 million Flint aid package to be attached to the CR, but Ryan and McConnell repeatedly refused, according to a Democratic aide familiar with the negotiations.
Ryan had been publicly saying that the WRDA was the “proper place” to deal with the Flint aid and signaled it would be dealt with in a conference committee but Democrats were pushing for stronger assurances, preferably with a House floor vote of some sorts.
Ultimately, Ryan and Pelosi agreed on having the House vote on a Flint-related amendment to the WRDA bill the chamber was considering on the floor. Both sides had agreed that the amendment needed to be germane, meaning it could provide authorizing language, not actual money, for Flint assistance.
The amendment, which the House adopted 284 to 141, authorized $170 million in funding for infrastructure improvements to communities like Flint.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn of Texas told Roll Call that after talks stalled in his chamber, it was Ryan and Pelosi who pushed the CR and Flint agreement over the finish line.
“Since the Senate had passed the water resources bill with the Flint fix in it, it really was up to Speaker Ryan and Leader Pelosi to send the message that, ‘We’ll take care of it over here.’”
Michigan lawmakers and Flint funding proponents, however were not declaring victory.
The state’s two senators, Democrats Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, both voted against the CR because they wanted Flint funding to move alongside aid for flood victims. Kildee, too, had said he planned to vote against the CR for that reason.
“This is not over,” Peters said.
Peters, Michigan’s junior senator, said he would have preferred that the Senate-passed language, which called for an appropriation of funds, had been included in the stopgap. Still, he described himself as “cautiously optimistic” that the deal would result in the WRDA conference committee agreeing on Flint funding during a lame-duck session.
Kildee acknowledged that Flint aid still is not guaranteed.
“Nothing is certain until the ink is dry on the president’s signature,” he said.
Lawmakers’ efforts to finalize the Flint deal will continue even as members scatter for the six-week campaign break. So too will talks about how to keep the government open past Dec. 9.
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky told reporters there would be work through recess to try and construct the 11 remaining appropriations bills “that will be brought out in some fashion.”
The real endgame in December is likely to have its fair share of drama too. Asked if this round of deal-making predicts a smoother process later this year, a grinning Cornyn replied: “It’s always bumpy.”
John T. Bennett, Bridget Bowman and Rema Rahman contributed to this report.