Senate Blocks Energy Bill in Dispute Over Flint's Water

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Justin Roberson (left), age 6, and Mychal Adams, age 1, wait on a stack of bottled water at a rally where the Rev. Jesse Jackson was speaking about about the water crisis on Jan. 17, 2016 in Flint, Michigan.

Photographer: Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
  • Democrats lead opposition in bid to get more aid for Flint
  • Supporters vow to keep talking and seek another vote on bill

A bipartisan energy bill more than a year in the making was blocked by Democrats on a procedural vote in the U.S. Senate, falling victim to disagreements over aid for the lead-poisoned water system of Flint, Michigan.

The Senate voted 46-50, short of the 60 votes needed to advance the bill, with Democrats leading the opposition. Supporters said they would work to resolve differences and call for another vote, possibly next week.

Senator John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, accused Democrats of "gamesmanship."

"The vote that just went down was not about the energy bill," he said. "This is about trying to embarrass Republicans and trying to make us look bad and portray us as having no compassion for the people of Flint, which is exactly the opposite of true."

The legislation, S. 2012, was derailed by the dispute over steering hundreds of millions of dollars to Flint, a town northwest of Detroit where residents have been using water tainted with lead since the city switched its water supply system.

Negotiating Compromise

Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, and Senator Lisa Murkowski, the Alaska Republican who heads the chamber’s energy committee, have been negotiating a possible compromise.

Murkowski proposed a $550 million loan package for Flint and said she would continue work on the bill.

Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, said the situation in Flint is an emergency and the aid was insufficient.

"It doesn’t do what has to be done," Boxer said. "We need to put resources here. We need to get these kids into a safe situation where they’re not bathing in lead-contaminated water."

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, is expected to keep the energy bill on the floor, open for debate through the middle of next week, to allow more time for negotiations.

"I think the negotiations will continue and we’ll see if we can get to an agreement on Flint,” said Senator John Hoeven, a North Dakota Republican. “It’s possible we’ll be back on the bill even next week."

Other Communities

It will be difficult to reach consensus, said Senator James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican. Senate Republicans have warned that any move to address lead-tainted pipes in Flint opens the door to similar requests from communities across the United States with their own aging infrastructure.

"It seems like everyone is looking for an easy solution," Inhofe said. "There ain’t gonna be an easy solution. We’re talking about too much money, we’re talking about precedents that can’t be made."

Stabenow said the delay on the bill will "allow us to explore some even new ideas that have come forward.”

"We need to get this done; this is as much of a national emergency as a hurricane,” she said. “When an entire town can’t drink the water and children are being poisoned, it’s a national emergency."

"It’s not just about Flint. This is about any community that is suffering from contamination of their drinking water," he said.

The energy legislation would encourage energy efficiency upgrades of schools, speed up licensing of hydroelectric power projects and accelerate permits for liquefied natural gas exports. If passed by the Senate, congressional negotiators would work on a compromise with a separate measure passed by the House last year.

Bill’s Terms

The legislation also aims to accelerate the U.S. government’s review of proposed liquefied natural gas exports, by requiring the Energy Department to decide on those projects within 45 days of completion of an environmental review.

Over nearly two weeks of debate, the Senate has adopted some 32 amendments to the energy bill and voted on 38.

It has become relatively rare for major energy bills to advance on Capitol Hill, where they can be ensnared by debates on fossil fuels, climate change and other environmental matters. The last time Congress passed sweeping energy legislation was in 2007, and, before that, 2005.

Representative Fred Upton, a Republican from Michigan who heads the House energy committee, said he is optimistic the Senate will reach an agreement on Flint that will allow the underlying legislation to go forward.

After Friday’s procedural vote, "they’ll still be on the bill and they then sit down and reach some agreement on amendments," he said in an interview on Capitol Hill. "I’d like to think they can come to an agreement that not only helps Flint but helps the bill go to conference."

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