Flint Funding Deal May Avert Shutdown

Flint Funding Deal May Avert Shutdown
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An agreement reached late Tuesday between Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Speaker Paul Ryan could avert a potential government shutdown at week’s end, according to a Pelose aide. The deal would allow a vote on an amendment to the House version of a water resources bill and provide funding for the Flint, Mich., water crisis, thus removing a major impediment to another measure funding the government through Dec. 9.

The amendment would authorize $170 million for Flint and is expected to pass the House Wednesday. While that is $50 million less than the Senate version, it would give lawmakers the authorization to ensure funding for Flint is included in the final version of the water resources bill once the differences between the chambers are ironed out. 

It was not immediately clear whether the agreement between Pelosi and Ryan was enough for Senate Democrats to end their filibuster of the continuing resolution and move government funding forward, but it likely takes their biggest objection, which had led to a failed vote Tuesday, off the table.

Congress had moved a step closer to a shutdown Tuesday after the Senate failed to pass legislation ahead of a midnight Friday budget deadline.

The measure, which would have funded the government through Dec. 9, failed by a vote of 55-45, 15 shy of the 60 votes needed for passage. Thirteen Republicans joined the vast majority of Democrats in blocking it. In what has become an annual September tradition on Capitol Hill, both sides dug in their heels and blamed the other party for obstruction as the days dwindle to find an alternative and avoid a shutdown.

Most of the major issues that have blocked the continuing resolution have been resolved, including $1.1 billion in funding to combat the Zika virus that no longer restricts allocating money to Planned Parenthood, an impasse that caused Democrats to repeatedly filibuster the Zika funding earlier this year.  

Still, Democrats refused to vote in favor of a CR that doesn’t include $220 million in relief money for Flint, Mich., to help deal with lead contamination in the city’s water supply. Republicans, frustrated by Democrats’ opposition, accused them of pushing the government toward a crisis because of election year politics.

Democrats, however, argued that because the funding bill included $500 million in flood relief for Louisiana and other states, the money to assist Flint should be included as well. Democratic Leader Harry Reid accused Republicans of being willing to shut down the government to avoid aiding Flint.

“We don’t need another manufactured crisis. All we want to do is help the people of Flint,” Reid said. “This shouldn’t be hard. We should be able to find a path forward to fund the government and help the people of Flint.”

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, however, accused Democrats of manufacturing a reason to vote against the funding bill.

“Can it really be that Democratic leaders have embraced dysfunction so thoroughly that they’d tank a noncontroversial, 10-week funding bill over, well, what exactly?” the Republican lawmaker said on the Senate floor Tuesday morning. “Does anyone know? Do they even know? The rationale seems to change by the hour.”

After Tuesday’s vote failed, it was unclear exactly what path could lead through the impasse ahead of Friday’s midnight deadline. Both sides insist they aren’t willing to shut down the government – while lobbing accusations that the other side is creating partisan gridlock.

Republicans argued that Democrats’ push for Flint funding was a manufactured reason to oppose the spending bill and a way to make the GOP-led Congress appear dysfunctional ahead of the November election. GOP senators had been eager to finish their work on the stopgap CR well ahead of the deadline so they could depart Washington and give incumbents in difficult re-election races more time to campaign in their home states. Republicans currently hold a four-seat majority in the Senate, but there are more than half a dozen competitive races in GOP-held states.

The aid money for Flint passed in a separate Senate bill by a 95-3 vote earlier this year, and Republicans have said that legislation is the more appropriate place to deal with Flint aid.

But some Democrats said Tuesday that they didn’t trust the GOP to follow through on funding in that legislation, the Water Resources Development Act. It was not included in the House version of the bill, which is scheduled to be voted on later this week. Sen. Jim Inhofe, the chairman of the Environmental and Public Works Committee, vowed to push for Flint money in a conference committee when the House and Senate iron out their differences down the road, but Democrats had – prior to Tuesday night’s reported deal -- essentially rejected that plan over concerns Republicans would not follow through after the election.

“How can we trust the Republicans when they say they’ll take care of Flint” in the water bill, Sen. Barbara Boxer, the top Democrat on the committee, said Tuesday. “This is easy to fix. Take up and pass our bill, commit to putting it in writing that it will be in the [water resources] bill, or add it to the CR.”

Sen. John Thune, the third-ranking Republican in the chamber, said Inhofe’s promise to push for Flint funding should be enough to assuage Democrats’ concerns.

“I think when he makes a commitment to something, he’s going to follow through on it,” Thune said. “I would hope that they would accept that at face value and know that there’s going to be an earnest, good faith effort made to try and address that. It was in our bill and we’re going to fight for that position.”

Still, Democrats were much more concerned about House Republicans than their Senate counterparts. Ryan and Rep. Bill Shuster, the chairman of the House committee that drafted the water resources bill, have previously said they believe Flint to be a local issue, not a federal one.

Ryan, in a press conference Tuesday morning, said Flint funding hadn’t been included in the House version because it was “not germane” to the bill, but said he thought a conference committee between the House and Senate was the appropriate place to iron out differences on the issue.

Boxer, however, questioned Ryan’s sincerity.

“We can’t trust the House,” she said.

Some House Republicans said they would support a continuing resolution that contained Flint funding if that was the only way to break the impasse and avoid a shutdown.

“It’s going to get solved one way or the other, either in the CR or the [water resources bill], so it seems to me we ought to just take care of it and move ahead on the CR,” Rep. Tom Cole, a top GOP appropriator, said Tuesday. He added he would prefer to include Flint money in the water resources bill, but if putting it in the temporary funding measure was the only way to break the impasse, “I certainly don’t have any objection.”

The other potential path forward appeared to be removing the provision for $500 million in flood relief instead of adding Flint money, something McConnell said is “worth discussing.”

“What I indicated a willingness to do is to think about what has been the Democratic position, which was if there was no Flint, there would be no floods,” McConnell said.

Reid, however, was noncommittal on what Democrats would do if emergency flood funding was removed rather than Flint aid money added.

“Let’s see [McConnell] do it, and then we’ll discuss it when it happens,” he said. “I can’t imagine why we would want to get rid of money for an emergency.”

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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