Flint aid overtakes debate over spending, WRDA bill

By Tiffany Stecker, Geof Koss | 09/27/2016 07:24 AM EDT

The White House last night did not quite issue a veto threat against the House’s Water Resources Development Act reauthorization but did urge lawmakers to beef up the bill, including with aid to Flint, Mich.

This story was updated at 10:35 a.m. EDT.

The White House last night did not quite issue a veto threat against the House’s Water Resources Development Act reauthorization but did urge lawmakers to beef up the bill, including with aid to Flint, Mich.

The debate over whether or how to help the city recover from its drinking-water lead crisis is not only coloring the debate over WRDA but also holding up legislation to keep the government funded past this week. The next several days may prove pivotal in settling the monthslong impasse.


The House Rules Committee yesterday made 25 amendments in order to the House WRDA bill, H.R. 5303, for floor debate this week out of more than 100 proposals.

Not on the list is one from Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.) to provide $220 million for Flint and other cities struggling with lead contamination. The Senate passed its version of WRDA, S. 2848, with such a provision earlier this month.

"This is a community that is in deep, deep, trouble," said Kildee, Flint’s congressman.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) warned against including Flint funds in a bill traditionally reserved for massive water projects.

"There are many water systems in the country in cities much bigger than Flint that have neglected their infrastructure," said Shuster. "It really comes down to the local and state governments to resolve those problems."

But WRDA is exactly where House leaders, including House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), say the Flint money should go. Democrats, including Kildee, would rather secure funding in a spending continuing resolution.

"It’s the bill that’s going to the president’s desk," Kildee told reporters yesterday evening about the CR.

McCarthy told reporters that House passage of WRDA would allow the two chambers to go to conference to reconcile their versions. He suggested Flint aid would be among the issues considered.

"It fits perfectly," McCarthy said. "We moved WRDA up [on the calendar] in our commitment to try to get this all done and try to get it to conference as soon as we can."

McCarthy, however, declined to promise that the House would eventually support WRDA legislation with Flint funding. He noted that some GOP proposals to aid the city were included in the chamber’s Interior Department and U.S. EPA spending bill.

"We are going to deal with Flint, and it’s inside the Senate WRDA bill," he said. "We’ve already put some portions, some elements, inside our Interior [bill], so we’re going to deal with Flint."

Pressure to act

Oklahoma Republican Tom Cole, who often bucks his party, gave his full support to including aid for Flint in either the CR or WRDA, echoing the White House. "It needs to happen," he said. "To miss an opportunity here would be a huge mistake."

A coalition including dozens of civil rights, religious and environmental groups urged lawmakers yesterday to include funding for Flint in the CR.

"Congress must act to address emergencies whenever and wherever they occur, and the need is most acute when our most vulnerable communities are struck by disaster," wrote the coalition.

The Senate yesterday took a break from focusing on the CR, instead approving S. 1886 to reauthorize the Integrated Coastal and Ocean Observation System, but will take a procedural vote today on a spending proposal without Flint aid.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) yesterday noted that the CR he introduced last week hews to agreed-upon spending levels and includes funding for fighting the Zika virus agreed to by both sides.

"It’s clean. It’s fair. We should pass it," McConnell said in floor remarks yesterday. On Flint, however, McConnell pointed to WRDA and Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman Jim Inhofe’s (R-Okla.) commitment to money there.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) responded that Flint residents have already been waiting for more than a year for federal assistance to address their city’s drinking water crisis.

"They always claim they will do it at a later time," Reid said of Republicans in floor remarks. "Flint has heard this and heard this. In the meantime, the people of Flint, if they’re fortunate, can take a drink of water out of a bottle and bathe with bottled water. We ran out of time months ago."

The House is waiting for the Senate to pass a CR before it takes one up. In preparation, the House Rules panel yesterday set the stage for the chamber to take the bill in short order.

Other WRDA issues

The White House statement of administration policy offered some support for the water resources authorization bill, which would approve about $5 billion for levees, dams, flood control measures and environmental projects.

But the statement criticized the bill for "establishing a confusing and duplicative mitigation bank program" managed by Gulf Coast governors in the Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Council.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee ranking member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said yesterday that House leaders’ removal of a section of the House WRDA measure to secure and use Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund money would lead him to vote "no" (Greenwire, Sept. 26).

Shuster yesterday asked lawmakers to swiftly pass the legislation and return to passing WRDA bills every two years. Since 2000, only two such measures have been enacted into law.

"Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good," he said, referring to the spat over the harbor maintenance dollars. Republican leaders say the section would have violated House rules.

The Rules Committee made the following amendments in order:

  • A manager’s amendment with additional Army Corps of Engineers projects for authorization.
  • An amendment from Rep. Brenda Lawrence (D-Mich.) to allow "gross negligence" to be a reason for a community to obtain emergency federal funding following a water emergency.
  • Two amendments from Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) to define parameters for work under the Rivers and Harbors Appropriation Act Section 408 review process and to allow for channels that have been "assumed for maintenance" to be considered the same as "authorized" projects.
  • An amendment from Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) to direct the Army Corps to provide additional guidance on dam safety repair projects.
  • An amendment from Iowa Reps. Rod Blum (R), Dave Loebsack (D) and David Young (R) to expedite flood risk work on the Cedar River.
  • An amendment from Rep. Mike Bost (R-Ill.) to authorize the Army Corps to consider benefits that may accrue in fixing non-federal levees.
  • An amendment from Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) to clarify the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act to count costs incurred before receipt of a loan to count toward the non-federal investment requirement.
  • An amendment from Rep. Bob Dold (R-Ill.) to allow WRDA projects to include compatible recreation features for less that 10 percent of the ecosystem restoration costs for the project.
  • Three amendments from Rep. Garrett Graves (R-La.) to loosen restrictions on nonfederal parties to execute water resources projects, to add criteria for application decisions pursuant to Section 408 and to expedite flood mitigation priority areas.
  • An amendment from Rep. Billy Long (R-Mo.) to lift the Army Corps’ moratorium on dock permits for Table Rock Lake and delay the final rule for the Shoreline Management Plan.
  • An amendment from Rep. David McKinley (R-W.Va.) to consider the economic or recreational importance or significance of a lock on the national, state or local level.
  • An amendment from Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.) to allow for an adjustment of the cost-benefit ratio after a project is completed using non-federal funds.
  • An amendment from Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.) to approve a land deal concerning the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.
  • An amendment from Rep. David Rouzer (R-N.C.) to direct the corps to work with local officials to create a no-wake zone in federal navigation channels.
  • An amendment from Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) to prohibit the corps from removing privately owned cabins on Lake Kemp for an additional five years.
  • An amendment from Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas) on incorporating studies from the Gulf Coast Community Protection and Recovery District when conducting the Coastal Texas Protection and Restoration Feasibility Study.
  • An amendment from Young to establish a policy for corps levees that affect community-owned levees.
  • An amendment from Rep. Elizabeth Esty (D-Conn.) to submit a report within one year of enactment on implementation of corrosion prevention activities.
  • An amendment from Esty and Reps. Frank LoBiondo (R-N.J.) and Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) to create a water management plan for aquatic ecosystems in the northeastern United States.
  • An amendment from Florida Reps. Lois Frankel (D) and Carlos Curbelo (R) to give local communities the option to seek sand from foreign sources.
  • An amendment from Texas Reps. Al Green (D), Gene Green (D) and John Culberson (R) to give priority to flood control projects in areas where flooding has resulted in loss of life.
  • An amendment from Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler (R-Wash.) to expand the availability of funds for watercraft inspection stations in the Northwest.

The Rules Committee will meet again this week to potentially allow another set of amendments to H.R. 5303. This could give Kildee’s Flint measure another opportunity to reach the floor, although it is unlikely given Chairman Pete Sessions’ opposition to adding the funding.