The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Senate clears Flint aid package, but House action still in doubt

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., left, accompanied by Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., and others discusses proposed legislation to help Flint, Mich. with their current water crisis, during a news conference, Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The embattled residents of Flint, Mich., who have endured lead-tainted water flowing from their taps for more than two years, would be eligible for $100 million in federal funds to replace corroded pipes — and potentially much more — under a bill that passed the Senate on Thursday.

The Flint aid was included in a broader $10 billion water resources bill that passed on a 95-to-3 vote and represents a breakthrough in months of negotiations between Democrats eager to send federal funds to the beleaguered city and Republicans wary of the price tag and setting a precedent for federal intervention into a crisis caused by actions on the state level.

But the Senate deal still must pass muster with the House, which is drafting a water bill of its own — one that spends less money overall and carries uncertain prospects for passage before the current Congress ends in December.

Democrats block Senate energy bill over Flint aid

Still, Flint’s representatives on Capitol Hill cheered Thursday’s vote.

“This is incredibly important,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said ahead of the vote. “It will activate the ability for the city to have funds they need right now to aggressively move forward and fix and replace the pipes, and I’m hopeful it will also really incentivize the state to step up and provide the balance of funding that’s needed.”

The water crisis is rooted in a 2014 decision by Flint’s state-appointed emergency manager to switch the city’s water source from the Detroit system to the Flint River. The river water’s more corrosive chemistry leached lead from service lines leading into homes and business, necessitating their replacement. Stabenow cited estimates of costs exceeding $200 million.

The Senate aid package makes $100 million in new federal money available to Flint through the Environmental Protection Agency’s Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, pending the development of a comprehensive plan to spend it. It also enables a separate EPA program to offer at least $700 million in loans to communities seeking to upgrade their water infrastructure.

Also included is a combined $50 million to address the health implications of lead exposure, including $17.5 million for the establishment of a national registry to monitor the health of children exposed to lead.

Senate Democrats seek $600 million in Flint water crisis relief

The total cost of the aid package is considerably less than the $600 million Democrats has sought earlier this year; the Obama administration has directed some existing federal resources to help Flint. The cost of the new aid is offset by ending an Energy Department subsidy program for the manufacturing of “advanced vehicles.”

House action remains uncertain. Rep. Bob Gibbs (R-Ohio), who chairs the Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee on water resources, said multiple House committees still need to finalize their work on the bill, but he said he was hopeful it could get done.

“What we’re hoping is to get the House bill [passed] here this month, go to conference and come back in November,” he said. “That’s the hope. I think there’s some things in there we can work with, but their bill is a lot more expensive.”

House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) said Thursday that completing a water bill was “definitely within the realm of possibilities” before year’s end.

Flint residents appeared with Michigan congressional leaders on Wednesday, where they said they planned to pressure the House for action. Rep. Dan Kildee (D), a Flint native, discussed the possibility that the Flint aid might be attached to a must-pass spending bill later this year. “Just get it to the president’s desk, and he will sign it,” he said.

Sen. Gary Peters (D) struck a similar note: “We will take any vehicle, no matter what it is — I don’t care what it is — as long as it gets done.”