It seems Senate Republicans aren't going to put up a fight after all about the politically delicate and racially charged question of how to help Flint climb out of its water crisis.
Politico's Seung Min Kim and Darren Goode report the Senate is close to a deal for an $850 million loan and aid package that Flint officials and Michigan's Republican governor say the city badly needs to repair lead-corroded pipes and bounce back after 18 months of poisoned water.
After some initial concerns, even some of the party's most fiscally conservative members backed off their opposition, indicating just how big of a crisis the situation in Flint is and just how delicate the racial politics of opposing aid for it are. (Senate Republicans take issue with the idea they backed off anything, pointing out Democrats blocked a bipartisan energy bill when Republicans wouldn't accept the original proposal of $600-$800 in unpaid-for aid.)
Flint is a hardscrabble town that is majority black and majority poor. Republicans were already walking a fine line in expressing their sympathies to residents while making the case it's not the federal government's role to step in.
Senate Republicans were initially hesitant about the idea of spending so much money for the cleanup. (The current package has much more loans.) Since they control both chambers, passing any aid package will fall on their shoulders.
But one by one, at least 10 Senate Republicans backed down from their concerns or found ways to allay them so that the aid package could go forward. (In the Senate, one senator has the power to hold up the entire bill.) Even senators who have a tendency to run toward controversy backed off. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) dropped his opposition, and Politico reports the last remaining senator holding up the process, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), will drop his as well.
Some of their fellow Republicans successfully made the case Flint is a crisis of such magnitude that the original rules needed to go out the window. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) asked Congress for help, and Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), who was leading negotiations on the aid package, told Goode that he pressed upon his colleagues that the Flint water crisis is just different from all the rest.
"I always try to stress to people, and I did in there, that now and again you have an issue that rises above what would normally be your behavioral pattern. This did," he said after a lunch meeting with Senate Republicans.
In addition, the bill's original Republican co-sponsors, senators Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Rob Portman (Ohio), are two of the most vulnerable GOP incumbents. The small town of Sebring, Ohio, has its own lead water issues, and Portman reached out to Senate Democrats early on in the process to try to spread the aid across several states. Senate Republicans likely didn't want to have two of their most vulnerable senators be forced to explain why their aid bill failed.
And compromise -- imagine that -- probably helped close the deal. Democrats met Republicans in the middle by agreeing to pay for much of the aid by cutting a beloved and advanced vehicle manufacturing loan program.
Finally, to the extent it could have an impact, Democrats in the Senate and on the presidential campaign trail blasted Republicans -- both in the Senate and in Michigan-- for what they saw as hypocrisy.
"Republicans disparage government all the time as intrusive, too involved and detrimental to our society. Gov. Rick Snyder is a leading cheerleader of that theory," Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said on the Senate floor in February. "He denigrates government every single chance he gets. But to whom does he turn when he needs help cleaning up the mess he has created? The federal government."
But Senate Republicans' own calculations that opposing aid for Flint would be just too politically costly probably had the biggest impact in helping them overcome their opposition to it and make peace with the deal.
This post has been updated to more clearly reflect Sen. Portman and Sen. Kirk's role in the Flint aid package.