Two Democratic senators proposed a $600 million bill to help Flint, Michigan, residents
Sen. John Cornyn, a top Senate Republican, raised doubts about a pricey federal response to the local crisis
Scrambling to respond to the lead poisoning in the Flint, Michigan, water supply, the two Democratic senators from that state unveiled a $600 million proposal to help replace contaminated pipes and treat residents who were exposed to the dangerous element. But a top GOP leader raised doubts about a pricey federal response to the local crisis, suggesting the measure won’t be easily embraced by Republicans who control Congress.
“I think we need to be careful here because while we all have sympathy for what’s happened in Flint, this is primarily a local and state responsibility,” Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Senate Republican told reporters in the Capitol. “Given the fact that we have about 19 trillion in debt I think it’s fair to ask do we want to have the federal government replacing all the infrastructure put in place by cities and states all across the country.”
The Democratic legislation would provide $400 million to help pay for the replacement of the contaminated pipes but requires the state do a dollar for dollar match, which would cover the cost of the project, according to preliminary estimates from the state. The measure would also provide $200 million for immediate and long-term health care needs of people who may have ingested the lead and would give new authority to the Environmental Protection Agency to publicly announce its concerns about contaminated water instead of relying on states to do so.
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, said the blame for the lead exposure belongs squarely with the Michigan state government, which is headed by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
“The state was aware of issues for far too many months before any action was taken,” Peters said. “The state of Michigan created this catastrophe.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi also pointed blame at the Republican governor. “To have the governor of a state be so cavalier and dangerous, and intentionally endanger the people of the city of Flint, is something so incomprehensible,” she said. “Right now we are concerned about the damage that has been done to the brains of these children because of their intake of this water.”
Cornyn was asked if he has concerns Republicans could appear insensitive to the largely poor and African-American community if they reject the legislation.
“I have no doubt that there will be some people who will try to exploit this for political purposes, but I think the concerns I raised about the proper role of the federal government and whether the taxpayers across the country feel like it’s the federal government’s responsibility to bail out cities and states when it’s really their primary responsibility,” Cornyn said. “I’m sure we’ll be there in some form or fashion to help but whether there ought to be a blank check I think that’s something we need to discuss.”
Setback for Democrats?
The blunt comments could be a setback for Peters and Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, who held a news conference Thursday with other Senate Democrats where they expressed hope that Republicans would approve the funding on the grounds that Flint residents are victims of a disaster similar to a hurricane or tornado, even though this one was man-made.
“I just want to emphasize how resilient the people of Flint are. They are proud. They love their community and their families. They just need our help. We all know this was literally a man-made crisis and is as much a catastrophe as any other kind of crisis,” Stabenow said at a news conference standing next to a blown up picture of a kitchen sink filled with discolored water. It’s “very personal when, in fact, you’re trying to get drinking water or cook or bathe and the water looks like that.”
House Democrats, away on a legislative retreat in Baltimore, where both President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were addressing them, made clear the Republican handling of Flint will be a major issue during this election year.
Pelosi said she hasn’t spoken to House Speaker Paul Ryan yet about how to address the crisis, and said it’s possible that the House would take up the legislation that was proposed on Thursday in the Senate to provide more money for assistance.
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra of California compared the situation in Michigan to the Wall Street meltdown when he said none of the bank officials were prosecuted for causing the crisis. “Many of us believe that what went down in Flint should cause someone to have a rap sheet. There should be some indictments for what went on.”
Becerra said his home state is also dealing with water contamination issues and he hopes that Republicans will join their efforts to address them.
Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Maryland, said what happened in Flint show the philosophical differences between Democrats and Republicans. “Do you believe that you should properly resource, invest resources in government’s ability to protect people - to make sure that their water is drinkable that their air is breathable?”
Senate Democrats hope to attach the Flint legislation to an unrelated energy bill that has bipartisan support and is currently on the floor. Stabenow refused to say whether Democrats would block the energy bill with a filibuster if Republicans don’t agree to support the measures for Flint.
“We’ve not yet made that decision,” Stabenow said. “But this is very serious.”