"One-hundred thousand people in Flint, Michigan, have been poisoned, and Republicans do nothing. Nine-thousand little children -- all under the age of six -- have been poisoned, their brains attacked by the contaminated water," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said before the vote.
The motion fell, 43-54, well short of the 60 votes needed to advance. The filibuster puts a final vote on the popular energy bill on hold as negotiations continue over how Congress should respond to the lead in Flint's drinking water, which was triggered after managers switched the city's drinking water supply and didn't use inexpensive additives to prevent that water from breaking down the lead pipes that run to people's homes.
GOP leaders said they want to help Flint but argued the $600 million package presented by the two Democratic senators from Michigan -- Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters -- to switch out lead service lines to individual homes and address health concerns for those who drank the bad water, is very expensive and comes before the state has done a comprehensive analysis of what that would cost.
"Since there is no plan announced or in place, it strikes me as putting the cart before the horse to say the Senate ought to vote on a $600 million emergency appropriations to pay for a plan that has not yet been created and disclosed to the American people," said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the number two GOP leader.
Republicans also argued that state and local governments need to help pay to fix the problem and that if the federal government were to get involved it should do so as part of the annual appropriations process -- where the spending can be carefully scrutinized -- and not as part of an unrelated energy bill.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, the chairman of the energy committee who has negotiated with Stabenow for weeks, proposed Thursday $50 million in emergency funding for Flint and access to a federal loan program that Michigan and others states with lead problems could tap to borrow additional money. Coupled with existing state and federal funds already available to Flint, Republicans said their proposal was fair.
This is a "reasonable approach" and more fiscally sound than the proposal from the Democrats, Murkowski said.
"We're not looking for something that just gives political cover," said Stabenow. "These children should not be a political football."
Reid argued that Cornyn and others Republican senators -- such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, two presidential candidates -- have pressed for federal aid for disaster relief in their states and that same spirit should apply to the residents of Flint.
"Whenever their states have been hard hit, Republican senators run here, to the Senate floor, and demand federal aid. And they should. The federal government should help in times of disaster," said Reid. "But there has to be a bit of consistency from Republicans. We must be fair to all Americans. The people in Flint are just like all other Americans. They are deserving of the federal government's help."
Cornyn accused Democrats of playing political "gotcha" with Republicans.
"We know the vote that went down was not about the energy bill. It was about trying to embarrass Republicans and to try to make us look bad and portray us as having no compassion for the poor people of Flint. Which is exactly the opposite of true," he said.