WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats on Thursday blocked a comprehensive energy bill after majority Republicans rejected hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency federal aid to Flint, Michigan, to fix and replace the city's lead-contaminated pipes.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid said that "100,000 people in Flint, Michigan have been poisoned, and Republicans do nothing" to help them. "Nine thousand little children ... have been poisoned. Still, Senate Republicans refuse to help."
The vote was 46-50, short of a number necessary to move ahead on the bipartisan legislation, the first such bill in nine years.
Democrats proposed a $600 million aid package for Flint last week, but Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said they agreed earlier this week to cut that proposal in half.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the second-ranking Republican, said it was premature to "write a multi-hundred million-dollar blank check" for Flint when state officials have not fully assessed their needs.
Flint is under a public health emergency after its drinking water became tainted when the city switched from the Detroit system and began drawing from the Flint River in April 2014 to save money. The city was under state management at the time.
Water was not properly treated to keep lead from pipes from leaching into the supply. Some children's blood has tested positive for lead, a potent neurotoxin linked to learning disabilities, lower IQ and behavioral problems.
Michigan has approved $37 million in emergency Flint funding for the current fiscal year. Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to propose an additional $30 million in state funding to help Flint residents pay their water bills.
President Barack Obama has said that about $80 million in federal funding is being made available to Michigan for investment in water system upgrades. It's not clear how much money would go to Flint.
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said the crisis in Flint demands immediate action.
"If any of my colleagues here saw a tragedy like this in their home state, they would be standing here doing everything in their power to deliver assistance, whether the crisis was natural or man-made," Peters said in an impassioned speech on the Senate floor.
Lawmakers approved emergency aid for Texas and South Carolina in a massive spending bill approved in December, Peters and other Democrats said.
Democrats proposed an amendment last week that would authorize up to $400 million in emergency federal funding to replace and fix lead-contaminated pipes in Flint. The measure requires the state of Michigan to match the federal spending.
The Democratic proposal also requires federal action if a state refuses to warn the public about unsafe water and authorizes $200 million over 10 years to monitor lead exposure in Flint.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, chairwoman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said discussions on ways to help Flint were continuing.
"We want to get this solved," she said, adding that it was counterproductive for Democrats to block an energy bill that has been in the works for more than a year.