Lee, a tea party favorite, says the problems in Flint are "man-made" and the state has "a large rainy-day fund totaling hundreds of millions of dollars" that should be used before federal resources are utilized.
"The people and policymakers of Michigan right now have all the government resources they need to fix the problem," Lee said. "The only thing Congress is contributing to the Flint recovery is political grandstanding."
The bill, agreed to by bipartisan negotiators two weeks ago, would finance water projects in affected communities around the country like Flint where the drinking water supply was poisoned by lead pipes causing serious health hazards for its residents. The bill also has provisions to deal with the health problems caused by the lead.
Pushed by the two Democratic senators from Michigan, the legislation has created a classic clash of political philosophies in the Capitol: Democrats believe Washington should step up with funds just as if Flint were hit by a natural disaster like a tornado or flood, while some Republicans think the federal government shouldn't be involved and state and local governments should deal with the problem.
An aide to Lee said the Utah congressman wants to limit funding to just Flint, not other communities, out of fear that if it were open to all communities, it could be an expensive and ongoing fund.
"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, and trying to sneak it through the Senate without proper debate and amendment," Lee said. "I respectfully object."
Lee is using a courtesy given senators to prevent a bill from being taken up on the floor because that senator has objections with the bill. It is a step short of a filibuster but could become one if Lee's concerns are not addressed and the leadership tries to bring it to the floor over his objections.
"This bill doesn't increase federal spending by one penny -- it's fully paid-for and has the co-sponsorship of the chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee and four other leading Republicans," said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, after Lee issued his statement.
"I am extremely surprised that Senator Lee would be holding up a bipartisan bill that would help communities across the country including in his home state of Utah. If Senator Lee opposes this bipartisan bill, that is fully paid-for, he should vote against it, but he should not block it from even getting a vote," she added.
Key senators and aides in both parties said Thursday they hope to address some of Lee's specific concerns with the way the bill is paid for and that he will lift his hold. The Flint bill is tied to an unrelated energy bill that also is facing objections from senators. Negotiations on both continue.
Senate leaders hope to be able to take up the bills after completing an addiction bill sometime next week.