Last night, the Democratic presidential candidates held a debate in Flint, Mich., where they emphasized their multiple visits to the city and called for a federal remedy (see related story). A few days earlier, the Republicans running for the White House debated in Detroit, but Flint came up only briefly, with a focus on state solutions, and none of the candidates stopped by the city to assess the crisis (E&E Daily, March 4).
The approaches by the presidential candidates are the latest example of the far different responses to the water crisis from Democrats and Republicans. Like the city’s water supply, the Flint debate on Capitol Hill has become tainted — by partisan politics and different beliefs in the role of the federal government — and it’s threatening the chances for a legislative response.
The Senate will try again this week to hammer out a bipartisan aid package, while the House will hold more hearings on Flint when it returns to work later this month.
Democrats place the blame for the crisis squarely on a cost-cutting move by the state to switch the Flint water supply. With no quick action from the state or local governments, they say Congress should approve hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding to rebuild the city’s water lines and provide long-term care for 9,000 children believed to be affected by the neurotoxin. They say visiting the city focuses attention on it.
"Too many members are aligned not with the people in Flint, Mich., but with their party," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California, who along with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) led a 26-member Democratic delegation to Flint last week.
Democrats note that no GOP members of Congress or presidential candidates have yet made an official visit.
Becerra said Republicans are reluctant to cast blame on Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R), whom he called "derelict" in causing the crisis. He said GOP lawmakers should visit Flint to find out firsthand from residents what it’s like to go for months without being able to use their tap water.
He added, "We hope that this Republican Congress will decide it’s time to do something."
Pelosi for her part insisted that Democrats are not "politicizing" the public health emergency, but she also suggested that the GOP presidential candidates are in "denial about the need for a federal response."
Republicans believe that the state and local governments should largely be responsible for fixing their infrastructure and say U.S. EPA shares part of the blame. They warn that if the federal government provides large chunks of infrastructure dollars for Flint, then other communities across the country will expect the same.
Many say traveling to Flint would be no more than a public-relations stunt that could interfere with work already underway in the city.
"What’s really happening here is that Washington politicians are using the crisis in Flint as an excuse to funnel taxpayer money to their own home states," said Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), who is holding up an energy package in the Senate that has about $220 million attached to it for fixing water systems in Flint and other communities.
Lee accused Democrats of "political grandstanding" and said the state of Michigan already has all the resources it needs to fix the problem due to its large budget surplus and hefty rainy-day fund.
Rep. Greg Walden, (R-Ore.), who is a member of the GOP leadership as head of the National Republican Congressional Committee, also dismissed charges that his party should do more. "The Democrats want to politicize it; we want to solve the problem," he said.
Snyder has said all levels of government share the blame for Flint. "I will fix this crisis and help move Flint forward," he said on Twitter.
While Senate haggling over Flint brought debate on the bipartisan energy package (S. 2012) to a halt last month, senators from both parties last week tried to draw a distinction between the political forces at play and the work of a small group of lawmakers to hash out a compromise (Greenwire, Feb. 11).
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) last week downplayed any political motivations of the large delegation of Democrats who visited Flint with her Friday — saying the visit coincided with last night’s debate.
She deflected questions on the political calculations, saying she and senators from both parties are close to agreeing to a compromise they hope will allow the energy bill and the Flint package to come to the floor for separate votes.
"What I feel good about is we have a very strong bipartisan effort here to help not just Flint but other communities, so I just want to get that done," Stabenow said in an interview.
However, last month, Stabenow harshly criticized Republicans for stonewalling efforts to help Flint, while Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) suggested Democrats were more interested in keeping the issue alive politically (E&E Daily , Feb. 11).
Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) told E&E Daily that the motivation to strike a deal on Flint is motivated by compassion for the afflicted individuals, which inspired him to take "this one real seriously."
"I think all of us look at that and are so upset by what’s going on," he said. "But when I go to our conferences, I don’t see a lot of people say, ‘Look, we’ve desperately got to get this done.’"
A House divided
Even if the Senate can move a package, it’s not certain it will come up in the House.
Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) has said his first priority is finding out the causes of the crisis and has declined to commit to any federal aid.
A House leadership aide said the Senate should not expect the House to take up its Flint bill and suggested any legislation would first have to move through the committee process.
Unlike the Senate, the House had and is scheduling more hearings into the crisis, but those, too, have partisan overtones.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will have Snyder testify at a hearing on March 17 at the governor’s request, but EPA chief Gina McCarthy will also be at the hearing. Republicans are eager to suggest that EPA shares some of the blame for not monitoring the drinking water supply; Democrats have dismissed those claims.
House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) is also planning a Flint hearing later this month but said it will be forward-looking to try to avoid future water crises. Upton said he has no plans to call Snyder to testify.
House Democrats, meanwhile, have pressed for a broader federal response, with many backing legislation that would provide close to $800 million in federal emergency matching funds for Flint to repair its infrastructure and provide medical and educational services for affected children.
Upton, who along with the rest of the Michigan delegation backs the bill, said it has little chance of winning support in a House averse to emergency federal spending. He said the easier option would be including dollars in fiscal 2017 spending.
But there’s great uncertainty surrounding the fiscal 2017 spending bills, with House Republicans struggling to pass their budget. Even if they can move one, it would allow for little new spending; if they fall short, spending may remain stuck at current levels.
Moreover, Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), ranking member on the Energy and Commerce Committee, and other Democrats said they believe a far bigger package is needed, not only for Flint but for other failing infrastructure. He called the Senate plan for Flint "inadequate."
Rep. Dan Kildee (D-Mich.), who represents Flint and has led three Democratic delegations to the city over the past three weeks, says his aim is to keep Congress focused on the crisis — regardless of party.
He said no GOP lawmakers have yet asked him to visit Flint, but said he was pleased that Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who is running for president, recently reached out for a briefing and hopes other Republicans do, too.
"I’ll celebrate any candidate, anybody at all who wants to come to Flint; Snoop Dogg came to Flint, and I was happy he came," Kildee added.
Reporter Tiffany Stecker contributed.